Music of Russian Princesses:
From the Court of Catherine the Great

(Dorian, 2002)

During the reign of Czarina Catherine the Great (1762-1796), Russia experienced one of the most cosmopolitan periods in its history. In the second half of the 18th century it was transformed from an obscure Eastern European monarchy into a major player in continental politics, affecting events not only in Europe itself, but also in Asia Minor and as far east as Persia. This was also reflected in the music that emerged from this erstwhile backward Slavic state.

This newfound identity may in part be attributed to the background of the empress herself. She was born in 1729 as Princess Sophia, a scion of the Anhalt-Zerbst dynasty. This was only a modest princely family from Germany, but her mother's family had marital relations with the daughters of Czar Peter the Great. Through the scheming of these imperial relatives, Sophia was in 1745 betrothed to the feeble and sickly heir to the Russian throne and styled Grand Duchess Catherine. A culturally and scholarly inclined lady, she never felt at home in her husband's Russia, spending most of her time in Germany. Within a year of her husband's succession to the throne, Catherine led a coup d'etat against her own estranged spouse, who was eventually killed by her lover, Gregory Orlov!

For the next 30 years, Catherine would rule as czarina of all Russians. As part of her modernization policies she also introduced western cultural tastes to the court in St. Petersburg. She was responsible for the amassing of a tremendous art collection and the construction of the world-famous Hermitage museum, which was commissioned by her.

Music of Russian Princesses contains examples of the impact of western music on court entertainment during Catherine's reign. The album consists of 14 compositions, most of which can be dated close to the empress' death in 1796. The overriding impression created by this compilation is the realization that there was nothing "Russian" about the St. Petersburg music scene at the end of the 18th century. We are presented with a number of vocal miniatures in the Italian canzonetti and French romance tradition, and a number of instrumental compositions for keyboard and violin.

About one-third of them are from the hand of Princess Natalie de Kourakine (1768-1831), who regaled the court with ariettas in both French and Italian. A lady-in-waiting, Countess Golovina (1766-1821) composed the then highly popular "Roses d'Amour." A woman of more modest origins, admiral's daughter Ekaterina Siniavina performed occasionally at the court as a singer and harpsichordist before her death in 1784. A sonata and a minuet of hers represent two of the oldest compositions on this CD.

The only concession to the country's own heritage are two folk songs in Russian by two noblewomen. The daughter of a naval officer, Maria Zubova (1749-1799) has left us the highly popular "I am Banished to the Desert." The version performed for this CD contains a variation for seven-string Russian guitar. The other number is a very well-known Russian dance song "On the Hills" by Maria Naryshkina (1766-circa 1802), daughter of an important courtier.

The album further contains a single contribution by Princess Dolgorouky, descendant from a noble family that can trace its roots back to 9th century Rus; an adaptation of a Mlle. De Veriguine composition; and the introductory polonaise by the virtually unknown Catherine de Licochin.

All these pieces are brought to us by the young ensemble Talisman, an initiative of guitarist/artistic director Oleg Timofeyev and soprano Anne Harley. A Ph.D.-holding musicologist, Timofeyev is also responsible for the musical archaeology that preceded the compilation of this album. In the course of a two-year search through libraries in Moscow, Kiev, Copenhagen and New York, he dug up most of the compositions we are now able to hear, possibly for the first time in centuries. The music is performed mostly on epoque instruments. Timofeyev's guitar dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, while the baroque violin used by Swiss violinist Etienne Abelin is a 1740 masterpiece of Johann Liedorff. Only the harpsichord of Russian-born Irina Rees is a 1992 copy after an original by Pascal Taskin (who died 1766).

What makes this collection of period music so special is that it brings together what has been salvaged of an all but forgotten heritage. Music history has paid scant attention to the Russian composers of that time, let alone women composers. Both Talisman and the Dorian label need to be congratulated with this project to preserve the musical legacy of a unique period in Russia's varied cultural history.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 14 June 2003

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