Rubinstein, Christus

I decided to be esoteric tonight and attend the Moscow premiere of Anton Rubinstein’s opera Christus at the Tschaikowsky Hall with the Tyumen Philharmonic Chorus and the Camerata Siberia under the direction of the composer’s great-grandson, Anton Sharoyev.  Rubinstein, one of the great nineteenth century pianists, composer, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and possibly more responsible than any other person for the quality of music education in Russia to this day, regarded “Christus” as his best composition.  More oratorio than opera, he completed it shortly before his death in 1894, and it had its posthumous premiere in 1895 in Stuttgart.  The score then completely vanished, until someone discovered it in a Berlin library in 2007.

Sharoyev, the composer’s great-grandson, who happens to be a conductor himself, dusted it off and taught it to his ensemble as an unstaged oratorio.  They have performed it before, but brought it to Moscow for the first time tonight.  The huge hall was 2/3rds empty, so I figured either the Muscovites were not as curious as I was, or they knew something I did not – or both.

I was looking forward to hearing this work.  Unfortunately, the people on stage had no musical talent whatsoever, therefore I cannot really say that I have heard the work.  I think it resembled something about halfway between oratorios by Felix Mendelssohn (Rubinstein’s friend and mentor) and by Franz Schmidt (certainly it was halfway between them chronologically).  But that is really just a guess.  Although it would seem that Rubinstein pre-dated Schoenberg in inventing atonal music with this work, I think this came not by design but more as a result of the orchestra not bothering to tune its instruments before playing, and the singers not being able to hold a pitch.

The orchestra was a small strings-only chamber ensemble.  Its sounds got lost in the Tschaikowsky Hall, and were periodically completely inaudible whenever the organ joined in.  This was probably for the better, because no conservatory would teach people to make those sounds on string instruments – I could not tell if the musicians were producing those sounds, or if the instruments themselves were crying on their own from the pain.

The Tyumen Philharmonic Chorus and pack of soloists did not do any better.  The opera was set to a German-language text, and these people sang German as though they had shoved marbles into their mouths first.  Periodically, and for no apparent reason, they lapsed into Russian.  This was slightly better – and if they were so uncomfortable with German diction, then they probably should have sung the whole thing in a Russian translation.  But even in Russian, although more clear with their words, they still could not sing.

I sat in a section full of well-dressed women in their 60s.  Judging by their facial expressions and head-shakings of utter disappointment, which matched mine, their assessment of the performance agreed with mine.  Like me, they had a hard time even giving a polite applause for effort.  These so-called musicians on stage did not merit that much – the most polite thing to do was to walk out without applauding (at least I did not boo them).  I would say a performance this bad might get them deported to Siberia, but apparently they already live in Siberia.

The saddest thing with this performance, though, is that it was so bad that they may have succeeded in burying this piece for another hundred years.  No one else has performed it since it was rediscovered, and maybe no one ever will.  That may be a shame, since it is possible the work was as good as Rubinstein thought it was.  We may never know.

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