Russian extremes and caviar dreams

‘I have every reason to go insane,” said Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky in a typical mood, “except for music.”

Andrey Gugnin. Photo: Oksana Sidyagina

Tchaikovsky was hardly the only Russian composer whose personality and music balanced on the cusp of insanity. Mussorgsky drank himself to death by the age of 42, Glinka died of heartbreak a few years later, Borodin died not long after that from overwork as a chemist and composer. Tchaikovsky apparently committed suicide, shamed by his homosexuality.

True, the other Russian composer featured in the next performance by the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, Sergei Rachmaninoff, died at the ripe old age of 69, rich and famous in Beverly Hills. But he was the most dour-looking composer in history.

“Sergei was a six-and-a-half-foot scowl,” said Stravinsky.

Yuri Medianik. Photo:

Everything in Russian music is extreme. As the RBSO’s concert on Sunday will display, The Rachmaninoff Concerto will be over-luscious, over-elaborate, over-extreme, fitting only for the grandest hands to master (the composer himself is listed in the Guinness Book Of Musical Records as having a handspan of 13 white notes! Try that on your piano).

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is the composer’s autobiographical statement of extreme passion and an extreme longing for death. All in a massive, romantic extremely demon-ridden emotional work.

Even the start of the programme, a Rachmaninoff Barcarolle — a simple piece based on the Venetian songs of the gondoliers — will have an extreme performance here, thanks to the unique conductor Yuri Medianik.

All conductors are supposed to have a minor mastery of every orchestral instrument, and most are true masters of violin and piano. The Russians are different. Their most eminent conductor Serge Koussevitsky played neither violin or piano — he was a master of the double-bass. And Medianik, while a prize-winning violinist, is one of the great bayan players of the world.

What is the bayan? It is an accordion. But like all things Russian, it is different. The keys and chord notes are in the same place, but internally, it is constructed to have a fuller more colourful sound and a far larger keyboard compass. In fact, this is the instrument that all classical artists prefer — including Medianik, who will play the Barcarolle, originally for piano, with his rare instrument.

Born into a musical family, he learned the bayan at the age of two, went on to violin and piano, and then discovered, not Bach or Beethoven, but the Argentinian tango. For that, he plays the Argentinian bandeon (another accordion), has written for and about the tango. In fact, he arranged Vivaldi’s The Seasons for tango orchestra.

Still, he is classically trained, a graduate of the Tchaikovsky State Musical Conservatory. Today, he is a regular partner to various orchestras throughout Russia, a soloist with the Piazzola Quintet, and has given concert tours throughout Russia, the US, UK and throughout Europe.

His recordings include the Mozart A Major Concerto, as well as bayan music. A master of tango, jazz, contemporary music and — of course — the music of his homeland, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, he will give his debut performance leading the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra.

The soloist on Sunday is a fellow graduate from the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. But Andrey Gugnin has kept to the straight and narrow in his burgeoning career. In a country whose young players — like Daniil Trifonov — are counted among the most dazzling pianists in the world — Gugnin has held his own with an international reputation.

Prize-winning pianist in Italy, Zagreb and the Beethoven International Piano Competition in Vienna, last year he capped off his awards by winning the Gold Medal and Audience Award at the International Gina Bachauer Competition in America and a series of first prizes in the Sydney International Piano Competition.

This has resulted in recitals throughout the world. Including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein, the Marinsky Concert Hall in St Petersburg (with Valery Gergiev as conductor) and of course most prestigious of all, Bangkok’s Cultural Centre.

His recordings include the complete concertos of Shostakovich. And if you recognise his style when he plays here, you may have heard his recording as the background music for the Oscar-winning movie, Bridge Of Spies.

The rarely-played Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto should be caviar — the best Russian caviar, of course — to his talents. The composer had composed it to show America how well he could play, while on tour in 1909. Compared to the popular Second Concerto, this is more elaborate, and fearfully difficult.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is a different kettle of Russian sturgeon. The year he wrote it, he had been married for seven weeks to a woman who a) he was unable to love; and b) who was even more neurotic than Tchaikovsky himself. The result was a symphony which he explained in writing. The first movement was fate, “the feeling of despair”. The next was “sadness in the evening”, when we remember happiness of youth, gone forever. The third is “a mind with dismal imagination, and the pictures of a drunken peasant”. The fourth movement? A peasant festival.

“Enter their simple joys, and you will be happy,” he declares.

One critic called the piece “a sleigh ride in Siberia”, but through the last 140 years, it has remained a work of joy, despair, dance, tragedy — and an example of Russian extremism at its most glorious.