Beyond Swan Lake: Five Russian Classical Masterpieces You Should Know

Swan Lake performed at Alexandrinsky Theater.

Photo: Andrew Bossi

  • Jan 14, 2020
  • Tiffany Zhu

Much like how you can rewatch some comedies over and over, there are Russian classical pieces you could listen to a million times and never tire of. But, inevitably, after listening to Swan Lake and The Nutcracker for the umpteenth time, a fan of Russian classical music will start asking themselves: Now what?

Never fear — the pantheon of Russian classical music is as vast as Russia itself. Here are five underrated gems that listeners should give a go.

1. Modest Mussorgsky, “Songs and Dances of Death”

Modest Mussorgsky is well known for “Night on Bald Mountain,” a bristling depiction of a witches’ Sabbath. But he has also produced subtle works on dark themes. Between 1875 and 1877, Mussorgsky set to music four short poems about Death. Creeping scales, lilting waltzes, and thundering marches transport the listener to each scene.

In the first song, Death appears to a mother watching her ill child; taking the child from the mother, Death rocks the child to sleep. In the second, Death appears as a young man seducing an ill young woman under her window, promising to free her. The third song sees a drunken peasant wandering into a blizzard, with Death leading him in a giddy trepak dance until he freezes. Finally, in the last song, Death stands as a general over a battlefield of dead soldiers. Maybe one side won, maybe not, but regardless, Death proclaims: “The battle has ended! I have triumphed over all!” One is reminded of the adage: “A war does not determine who is right, only who is left.”

Galina Vishnevskaya sings and Mstislav Rostropovich accompanies in this classic rendition.

2. Sergei Slonimsky, Sinfonietta

Most Russian classical music fans probably have not heard of Sergei Slonimsky. But they may know of Slonimsky’s sometime collaborator — Soviet bard Vladimir Vysotsky. Slonimsky composed the soundtrack for Интервенция, a famous musical film starring Vysotsky. So some of Vysotsky’s best-known songs, such as “Деревянные костюмы”, were in fact written by Slonimsky.

Apart from his connection to Vysotsky, Slonimsky deserves to be respected in his own right. A listen to his Sinfonietta (which means “little symphony”) will endear the first-time listener to his work. The first movement instantly catches one’s ear with its clarity of sound, its unembellished yet meandering melody, and — three minutes in — an Orthodox hymn-like melody. The second movement continues drawing on “Russian” themes, presenting and developing a poignant folk-like melody that echoes Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The final movement is a fast-paced but graceful dance synthesizing the styles of the previous two: triumphant hymn-like music features alongside a beautiful music-box-like tune.

The second movement of the Sinfonietta, Vladislav Chernushenko conducting the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Symphony Orchestra.

3. Anton Arensky, Piano Trio No. 1

Anton Arensky was a contemporary of Tchaikovsky best known for his chamber music. Unlike symphonies or ballets, chamber music involves just three or four instruments — Arensky’s First Piano Trio uses piano, violin and cello. Despite the paucity of instruments, though, the four movements are imbued with richness. Indeed, Arensky shared Tchaikovsky’s predilection for lush harmonies and memorable melodies.

The first movement is somber but impassioned; the seriousness gives way in the second movement, a happy-go-lucky scherzo that will have listeners bouncing with joy. The third movement revives the solemn mood. Titled “Elegy,” it begins with heavy chords but gives way to quiet reflection, the mood lightening as softly as clouds. Finally, the last movement ties the previous movements together, recalling past themes and ending on a harsh, though melodious, note.

The Beaux Arts Trio performs Arensky’s First Piano Trio (sheet music included).

4. Sergei Rachmaninov, Symphonic Dances

The Symphonic Dances are neither a symphony nor quite dances. Regardless, they are lively enough to nod along to. The first movement begins with a serious but brisk dance. Although the dance is highly dissonant, its unrelenting rhythm draws listeners right in. Soon the march mellows into a slow alto sax melody that has become famous in its own right. Who would have thought a Russian composer would use a jazz instrument? Then again, Sergei Rachmaninov had moved to the U.S. by the time he wrote this piece. This was his last, major orchestral work.

The second dance is not as famous as the first. Also highly dissonant, this is a waltz with an ambivalent mood. If the second dance puts you at unease, the third dance lets you dance it right out. It restores the brisk pace of the first movement and, to boot, throws in an unexpectedly sonorous tune, quoted from Rachmaninov’s own choral All-Night Vigil. The dance ends on a satisfying chord, although who knows? Maybe you’ll keep dancing afterwards, too.

The first movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.
Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra.

5. Nikolai Myaskovsky, Cello Concerto

Russian-Soviet composer Nikolai Myaskovsky wrote his Cello Concerto between 1944 and 1945. It was the final days of World War II, when the Soviet army was driving the Germans out. If there is a sense of struggle in the Cello Concerto, it is not bombastic military struggle so much as a struggle to find beauty in sad moments.

The first movement opens with a touching, slow melody and fades between major and minor keys. The second movement swings between turbulence and a troubled quiet, culminating in an impassioned storm of emotion. When the first melody returns in the second movement, it is both relieving to hear something familiar, and sobering to realize the struggle isn’t over. Nevertheless, the concerto ends on a peaceful note. Despite the darkness, there is hope.

Cellist Mischa Maisky and the Russian National Orchestra perform the Cello Concerto.

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