In 1889 Vilnius-born Steinberg married the daughter
of his composition professor at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. His
professor was, of course, Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky died that same year
and Steinberg was appointed to the Conservatoire staff. This rapid ascent
rankled long and deep with Stravinsky who had written his Feu d'Artifice
to celebrate the wedding. Steinberg went on to create performing
editions of the later Rimsky operas as well as orchestral suites. In
addition, in 1913, he completed and published Rimsky's massively influential
book, 'The Principles of Orchestration'. He also in his own music remained
faithful to Rimsky's nationalist orchestral style.
There is nothing in the two works here to suggest Shostakovich
who, with Yuri Shaporin and Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov (Nikolai's nephew
- the one who advocated quarter-tone music), were Steinberg's pupils.
The Symphony No. 2 rises from deep Slavonic gloom into a toiling
cauldron of Rimsky and Rachmaninov - principally the former. The music
has some resonances with Rimsky's Antar, Rachmaninov's Isle
of the Dead and early Miaskovsky. This is a torrid Russian symphony
with lashings of atmosphere and, in the middle movement, some rasping
and snarling brass. The woodwind writing may be equated with the brilliant
scherzos of Glazunov; similarly in the finale of the 1905 Variations.
It lacks ragingly distinctive themes although there is plenty of imaginative
oriental treatment and some great violin solos. In the finale the horn
writing has about it a touch of Franck's Chasseur Maudit. This
movement has more than its meed of gaunt moments including, at the very
end, the sense of the swinging to and fro of a colossal boulder-swung
pendulum. Eisenstein would have loved it.
The Variations, of which there are nine, begin,
naturally enough, with the Theme and end, equally naturally, with a
Finale which is also marked 'Variation
X'. The Theme is all grace and smiling favour. The variations benevolently
run the gamut through sunny Brahms, effervescent Dvořák, sturdily
singing Schmidt (Husarenlied Variations) and brilliant
Glazunov (the vivacious Var IV and the finale). As with the Symphony
there are no half-measures. Järvi directs a performance with the
sort of brimming conviction you would expect to find in a performance
of a Tchaikovsky or Borodin symphony.
The DG recording of First Symphony would almost
certainly be worth tracking down and future instalments are worth watching
out for. I know the 1932 Fourth Symphony, dubbed Turksib in honour
of the pioneering feat of constructing the railway line joining Turkestan
to Siberia, and it is a highly colourful affair. I do not mean to demean
it when I describe it as tartly modernised Borodin. People may well
have heard tapes of the BBC's 1994 broadcast by the BBCPO and Alexander
Vedernikov. The Fifth Symphony, from 1943, with its Uzbeki tunes and
local instruments (like the much later symphonies by Terteryan), looks
rather as if it were written in the same exile that produced folksy
works from Prokofiev (String Quartet No. 2) and Miaskovsky (Symphony
No doubt symphonies 3, 4 and 5 will follow over the
next few years. If so they are unlikely to find a more dedicated team
than DG, Järvi and the orchestra at Göteborg.
By the way Göteborg is the same place as Gothenburg
and the orchestra is the same orchestra that also recorded Rachmaninov's
operatic triptych for Deutsche Grammophon.
Maximilian Steinberg Symphony No. 1 etc DG 457 607-2 AmazonUK