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Glinka: Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmila”

In pagan Russia, the beautiful Ludmila is wooed by three admirers and eventually won, after a healthy dose of sorcery both good and evil, by the fair knight Ruslan. The first performances of the opera were poorly recieved, but it has since earned a place in the Russian repertoire and on the fringes of the international one.

The overture to Ruslan and Ludmila is a favorite curtain-raiser, the kind of bonbon  that tends to begin seasons or serve as encore after a splendid evening. It opens with exclamatory chord progressions, tutti, interspersed with scrambling scales in the strings; from these grows the headlong charge into the first theme of the sonata, a rollicking, soaring affair and, above all, wickedly fast. The transitional passage hints (in the timpani solo and string pizzicatos) at how strongly the opening exclamations will go on to govern both the organization at the texture; it lends to the braod cantabile  in lower strings and solo bassoon for a second theme, restarted by the full orchestra. (The second theme is not in the usual dominant key, but in a soft, mediant one, F major; this lends the section some of its warmth. The same theme is in a similarly unexpected key when it recapitulates.)

The development deals mostly with the opening gambit, fragmenting it, juxtaposing a bit of the second theme in close imitation, and referring again and again to the rhythm of the first two bars. After the recapitulation, a fine coda confirs the ebullience of the principal theme, piu mosso. All this portends a good love story with a happy ending.

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