Rimsky-Korsakov, Piano Trio in C Minor, (finished by Maximilian Steinberg)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 1844-1908

Piano Trio in C Minor, 1879 (finished by Maximilian Steinberg in 1939)

Nikolai Rimsky-KorsakovRimsky-Korsakov was a highly significant musical figure within late 19th century Russia whose influence would reverberate westward making a strong impression on Debussy, Ravel and other 20th century composers. He is celebrated for his brilliant and original orchestration in such classics as Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and Scheherazade that expanded the orchestral palette along with a new exotic “Orientalisim” that ultimately become inspiration for the French impressionists. Rimsky-Korsakov is often regarded as the chief “architect” of Russian Nationalism during an age when composers across Europe were seeking to express their native cultures, a diversity of “otherness” rising against the fundamentally Austro-Germanic aesthetic of the classical canon. Perhaps the most vivid expression of Nationalism was opera with its natural ability to leverage the mother tongue as well as indigenous folklore traditions. Rimsky-Korsakov thought of himself primarily as an opera composer producing a rich oeuvre comprising at least 15 operas, a further source orchestral suites and extracts associated with his fame. It is therefore somewhat surprising to learn that he composed chamber music, particularly considering some additional details of his historical and cultural context.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the many young composers connected with Mily Balakirev who collectively sought to project a distinctly Russian classical music. Known originally as “Balakirev’s circle”, a loosely knit society prominently featured five composers often called “The Mighty Handful”, the “Mighty Bunch”, or, simply, “The Five” referring to Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov (the youngest). Besides sharing their youth and a passion for musical Russian Nationalism, these composers were by and large amateurs. They were not academically trained not were they full time composers: they had “day jobs” (Borodin was a chemist, Rimsky-Korsakov a naval officer). This was a point of pride and considered the only path towards a true, native Russian style that eschewed the formal conservatory with its foreign classical models including the ultra conservative genre of chamber music. At the opposite end stood the educated “European”, Tchaikovsky.

While Rimsky-Korsakov initially embraced the ethos of “The Five”, he would eventually secure a teaching position at the St. Petersburg conservatory where he would undertake a personal, rigorous discipline of academic study absorbing the standard “canon” along with all the counterpoint, harmony, theory and analysis that accompanied it. This lead, in turn, to a thorough revision of all his previous compositions. As his musical purview expanded and “Europeanized”, his erstwhile colleagues from “The Five” disdained him. But they proved to be a dying breed. Rimsky-Korsakov’s success and widespread influence established a transition to the subsequent generation of Russian composers who now felt it essential to pursue thorough academic training.

As part of his deeper academic discovery, Rimsky-Korsakov composed a small cache of chamber music: a sextet, piano quintet, two string quartets and the piano trio on the program tonight, all works of his maturity. Still regarding himself primarily as an opera composer, he was less than sanguine about the trio in particular. In an essay for a Hyperion recording, Nigel Simeone nicely summarizes:

Rimsky-Korsakov was dismissive about his own Piano Trio in C minor. In his autobiography My Musical Life he recalls the works he composed in 1897: ‘I composed a string quartet in G major and a trio for violin, cello and piano in C minor. The latter composition remained unfinished, and both of these compositions proved to me that chamber music was not my field; I therefore resolved not to publish them.’ To his friend Kruglikov, he described it slightly differently, as ‘a rough draft only, which I shall now begin to polish up’. He tried out parts of it with friends at home but remained unhappy with the results

Enter the composer Maximilian Steinberg. A contemporary of Stravinsky, a fellow student at the St. Petersburg conservatory, the gifted Steinberg studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, his ultimate mentor, eventually marrying his daughter Nadezhda. Following the death of his famous father-in-law, Steinberg would edit and complete Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic treatise, Principles of Orchestration. Steinberg also completed the abandoned piano trio, worked primarily on the outer two movements and generally preparing the score for publication in 1939. It was eventually published in 1970.

Despite Rimsky-Korsakov’s misgivings and quite possibly because of Steinberg’s touchups, this is a full, feature-length piano trio of outstanding quality, well worth discovering. Perhaps most interesting, given its historical context, is that it is a highly classical, Romantic work in a thoroughly European style: there is essentially nothing Russian about it. Although quite original in sound and formal conception, it evokes Mendelssohn, Schumann and Beethoven, in that order, fitting quite naturally in a succession of “Austro-German” masterworks, a compelling addition to the great canon that is truly an international legacy.

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