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Northern Flowers

Boris TCHAIKOVSKY (1925 – 1996)
Chamber Symphony (1967)
Signs of the Zodiac (1974)a
Four Preludes (1984)
Clarinet Concerto (1957)b
Margarita Miroshnikova (soprano)a; Adil Feodorov (clarinet)b
St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra/Edward Serov
Recorded: Capella Concert Hall, St. Petersburg, 1985 and 1978 (Signs of the Zodiac)



I received my copy of this disc through De Rode Pomp in Gent ( ; e-mail ), but information concerning this and other Northern Flowers releases may be found in (e-mail ).


The present release perfectly complements the recent Hyperion disc (CDA 67413) reviewed recently here . It offers three more Tchaikovsky pieces, the Chamber Symphony being the only work common to both discs.

The four works here span some twenty-five years of Tchaikovsky’s composing life. The short Clarinet Concerto of 1957, more a concertino, was composed at about the same time as the Sinfonietta for Strings. It might be labelled ‘Neo-classical’, because of its easy-going nature, its melodic character and its colourful, piquant scoring. I was often reminded of Malcolm Arnold, Philip Lane and David Lyon as well as of Shostakovich in his lighter mood. This is a delightful, unpretentious piece of charm and great fun. I wonder why it is not heard more often, for it is a modest, but real winner.

As I mentioned in my review of the Hyperion disc, the Chamber Symphony is more a suite of orchestral etudes than a miniature symphony. It is in six hugely contrasted movements ending with a deceptively simple Serenade. However, the many harmonic surprises in this attractive score belie the Neo-classical label that one might be tempted to stick on Tchaikovsky’s mature music, defying any all-too-easy classification.

The magnificent cantata Signs of the Zodiac is still more personal, and reflects the composer’s more serious concerns. Shostakovich’s shadow looms large over this dramatic and tragic work setting sombre texts by Tyutchev, Alexander Blok and Tsvetaeva. It ends with a quite different text by Zabolotsky (Signs of the Zodiac) which the composer sets as a nursery rhyme, by turns funny and frightening, with some typically Russian black humour as well as a good deal of understatement leaving many questions unanswered. In spite of such apparently disparate literary sources, Tchaikovsky achieves coherence, from the orchestral introduction onwards. The first three settings (Silentium!, Far Out and Cross o’Four Roads) are generally darker in mood, disillusioned and with a touch of wry humour also found in the poems. The concluding setting is completely at odds with what has been heard before, although the text reflects on the same topics, but expressed in a superficially lighter manner. This magnificent work, the real gem here, has much in common with Shostakovich’s dark and desolate Fourteenth Symphony, although Tchaikovsky’s music is less single-mindedly pessimistic than Shostakovich’s. I am in no doubt about it, though: this wonderful piece is a minor masterpiece.

One might think that Tchaikovsky, like several of his contemporaries, chose easy ways out in order not to confront the artistic dictates of the Stalin years and after. Nevertheless he, too, sometimes ventured onto dangerous ground. In 1965, he composed a song cycle Four Poems of Joseph Brodsky for voice and piano. Brodsky’s name was anathema to the régime of the time; his work was banned for "social parasitism" (whatever this may mean). As a result, Tchaikovsky kept his settings to himself, and re-arranged them for chamber orchestra as Four Preludes. I do not know in how far the orchestral version relates – if at all – to the original vocal settings. What is quite clear, is that the music had by 1984 acquired more harmonic stringency and a biting dissonance. The Four Preludes perfectly stand on their own as ‘abstract’ music.

Serov, who conducted the first performance of Signs of the Zodiac, conducts vital and committed readings of these fine and at times intriguing works. The recorded sound, though less refined than on the Hyperion disc, is quite fine, though in no way outstanding. Curiously enough, the 1978 recording of the cantata sounds, if anything, much better than the more recent recordings. Both soloists are excellent. Miroshnikova’s committed singing in the cantata is superbly confident and, as a result, completely convincing; whereas Feodorov obviously enjoys the jollity and fancy displayed in the Clarinet Concerto.

Both this and the Hyperion disc are warmly recommended. They shed interesting light on a much neglected, but distinguished composer whose achievement is worth considering and deserves wider exposure.

Hubert Culot

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