— Mikhail Glinka: The Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), performed by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic.
Glinka was the first of Russia’s great romantic composers. His works inspired a generation of Russians to composed orchestral music, opera and ballet based on traditional Russian themes and culture in the context of the large modern romantic orchestra. In particular he inspired the so called ‘Mighty Handful’ also known as the ‘Great 5’ composers: Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin.
–Modest Mussorgsky, The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov (1874), performed by Nikolai Golovanov and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Bolshoi Theatre.
In many ways Boris Godunov remains the finest of all Russian operas. The most popular version was orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, a monumental composer in his own right. This particular version is conducted by my favourite conductor of all time, Nikolai Golovanov. Whilst there are comparatively few recordings of Golovanov, the ones that do exist are peerless. I highly recommend getting your hands on any and all of his recorded works.
— Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies 4 (1878), 5 (1888) and 6 1893), performed by Yevgeny Svetlanov and the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR.
Tchaikovsky is Russia’s most famous composer and a gift to the world. What Beethoven was for the late classical period, Tchaikovsky was for the high romantic period. Tchaikovsky truly had it all. He was a master of melody, leitmotif, orchestration, rhythmic intrigue and narrative. It is personally difficult to narrow down his great legacy to a few works, but generally, his final three numbered symphonies ought to serve as a good introduction. After Golovanov, Yevgeny Svetlanov remains my other favourite Russian maestro. His command of the orchestra is magnificent, his ability to take the music to exciting heights is simply, magical.
Sergei Taneyev: Overture to Oresteia (1895), performed by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and The Grand Symphony Orchestra of All-Union Radio and Television,
Taneyev was a student of Tchaikovsky and from his teacher inherited a brilliant sense of melody, moving chordal textures and sheer aesthetic romanticism. The overture to the opera Oresteia is sublime as is Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s deeply visceral interpretation of it.
–Alexander Scriabin: ‘Prometheus: The Poem of Fire’ (1910), performed by Yevgeny Svetlanov and the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR.
Scriabin brought the Russian orchestral tradition into the 20th century and remains one of the finest composers in history. Throughout his five symphonies and scores of solo piano compositions, Scriabin musically evolved from b being a late romantic to a pioneering modernist over the course of his life. His use of dissonance, the octatonic scale and unique orchestrations make him a wonder to behold. He was also a pioneer in the field of musical- kinetic art.
His final symphonic poem, Prometheus was intended to be performed alongside a ‘light organ’, a machine which would throw light onto the stage behind the orchestra to reflect the changing dynamics and moods of the piece. Scriabin developed a precise system in which each note in the musical scale would be represented by a corresponding colour. Whilst the light organ was not ready for the 1910 premier of the work, later performances did employ it. Scriabin’s theories on light and music proved to be highly influential on the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky.
–Aram Khachaturian: Symphony 3 (1947), performed by Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
Some may object to me putting this on the list as Khachaturian was an ethnic Armenian. However, he was born in Tiflis in the Russian Empire (later Tbilisi in what is now Georgia) and spent his career in Moscow. Khachaturian is another great modernist whose musical sophistication is often overlooked in the west. His use of octatonicism is often jazzy whilst many of his themes are unmistakably Armenian.
I find all of his symphonic works to be deeply moving. They are sonically challenging yet deeply emotionally accessible. His 3rd Symphony is actually symphonic poem which is thrilling, moving, enraging and calming, all at once. Kirill Kondrashin is one of the finest Soviet conducts and his interpretation of the work remains the best.
Alexander Alexandrov: The Sacred War (1941).
Alexandrov is best known as the founder of the Alexandrov Ensemble, often referred to as the Red Army Choir. The Sacred War is a beautiful song which holds a profound meaning to many as it was written during the height of the Great Patriotic War. Below is a video of it performed on the 9th of May.
The Singing Guitars
The Singing Guitars were one of the most famous of the so called ‘VIA’ pop groups which emerged in the late 1960s, the easy listening though highly enjoyable sounds won acclaim throughout the world. A playlist is below
Horizont: Horizont (1977).
Horizont were one of Russia’s first and finest progressive rock bands. The use of synthesisers and processed guitar makes of rich tapestry of sounds where an era when rockers dared to dream.
Autograph: We Need Peace (1986)
Autograph were a great late-prog rock band from Russia, their songs are sophisticated, global and very catchy.
Viktor Tsoi and KINO
Viktor Tsoi is quite simply, a legend. His poetic lyrics and charisma endeared him to the hearts of millions around the world. Russians of all ages rocked out to his music and in spite of his tragic death at the age of 28, his music remains popular. KINO were the Russian Beatles in many ways. They’re just ‘the rock band’. Here’s a live performance from 1990, later that year Tsoi would die.
So there you have it. A very short list of some of the wonders of Russian culture which according to the moronic Louise Mensch do not exist. I started writing this piece feeling quite angry, but after listening to all of this wonderful music, I can’t say that I am any more. The joys of Russian music are an antidote to the joylessness of a failed western politician.
I’ll end with another piece by Alexander Alexandrov, the anthem of the Soviet Union (from 1944) and the current anthem of the Russian Federation. There are many beautiful anthems in the world, but for me and millions of others this is simply the best. It is a work of art and it is difficult to hear with dry eyes. Enjoy!
For further listening please see this Spotify Playlist for more than 90 hours worth of Russian music.