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Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Dances and Overtures

The Queen of Spades (Overture) (1890) [3:58]
Fatum - Symphonic Poem, Op. 77 (1866) [15:58]
The Voyevoda (Overture) (1867-68) [9:21]
The Maid of Orleans: Entracte between Acts I and II (1879-81) [3:22]; Danse des Bohémiens (Act II) [3:44]; Danse des Polichinelles et des Histrions (Act II) [4:21]
Cherevichki (The Little Slippers): Danse Russe (Act III); [3:52]; Danse des Cosaques (Act III) [3:26]
The Enchantress: Introduction (1885-87) [5:31]; Danse des Histrions (Act I) [3:56]
Mazeppa: Gopak (Act 1) [4:21]
The Oprichnik: Danses (Act IV) (1870-72) [5:47]
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
rec. Grand Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine, Kiev, 18-20 December 2000. DDD
NAXOS 8.554845 [67:36]
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Tchaikovsky became acquainted with the eminent playwright Alexander Nicholaievich Ostrovsky early in the composer’s career and between 1864 and 1886 produced half dozen or so works based on Ostrovsky's plays. The largest of these was Tchaikovsky’s first opera The Voyevoda of 1867-68. A Voyevoda is a provincial governor. Not only did the composer use Ostrovksy’s play as his basis for the opera, but also he convinced the playwright to adapt the play into the libretto that Tchaikovsky used. Unfortunately the finished product, Tchaikovsky’s Op.3, did not please the composer and he destroyed the score. Sections of it were later reconstructed from orchestral parts, although much of it had been used in later operas. Something similar happened to the next substantial opus, the overture Fatum of 1868, which the composer also renounced and which was only published after his death with the late-seeming opus number 77.

Fatum and the Overture to The Voyevoda are the earliest items on this disc. There are also dances from Tchaikovsky’s third opera The Oprichnik, and from the revised version of his fourth opera Cherevichki (The Little Shoes) as well as the Introduction from The Enchantress and music from three of the later operas. The intent is to feature the lesser known operatic music. While the excerpts from The Maid of Orleans and Mazeppa will be familiar, as well as The Queen Spades Overture, the remaining works are little known outside Russia, though they have all been recorded at some time. This disc not only enables us to hear some rare music, but to sample in miniature the operatic career of Tchaikovsky, from first opera to next to last.

The Overture to The Voyevoda is unusual in that it shares only a small amount of melodic material with the opera and lasts over nine minutes. This piece is from the time when the composer was most under the influence of Slavophile ideas and in particular of Balakirev. The opening section has some interesting material, not much developed, but the middle section is much more convincing and the last section combines all the previous material in a very exciting way. This is one of the most lively performances on a disc that frequently suffers from rather stolid playing. At the other end of the Tchaikovsky opera chronology is the Queen of Spades. The overture is a wonderful amalgam of the surface splendor of 18th century St. Petersburg and foreboding of the tragedy to come. Kuchar and the Ukraine do fairly well, although the end is disappointing.

As we said above the three excerpts from The Maid of Orleans are often played. Again Kuchar and his orchestra have a good feeling for the Tchaikovsky idiom and play with spirit, but they never quite warm up enough to provide the excitement that is potentially in the music. They also suffer from over-miked percussion and some crude playing from the brass. On the other hand, the woodwinds are very good, as they are throughout the disc. The orchestra does much better with the excerpts from Cherevichki. This opera was originally entitled Vakula the Smith, after a story by Gogol. Tchaikovsky always loved this opera and in the eighties reworked it into its present form, which is periodically performed in Russia. The Act III dances contain some of its most charming music and Kuchar responds with forceful conducting and the woodwinds again with beautiful playing.

The Enchantress (also known as The Sorceress) was started just after the composer had finished his revised Cherevichki. The Introduction is interesting because it is a fluent combination of the magical Tchaikovsky of the ballets and the folky composer better known from some of the instrumental works. Unfortunately, the brass is pretty rough here and in the Act 1 Danse, although Kuchar pulls things out towards the end of the Danse and produces a beautiful finish to this piece. The players do only so well with the Danses from Act IV of The Oprichnik, but Kuchar brilliantly reveals the contrapuntal elements in the famous Gopak from Mazeppa and the orchestra supports him with some of their best playing.

This leaves us with the one non-operatic work on this recording, his first symphonic poem, Fatum. This is also a Slavophile work with the main theme letting us know that the composer is a friend (at that time) of the Mighty Five. Much of the drama and passion that would appear in the next year in Romeo and Juliet are here, but they are not yet organized and insufficiently refined. As it happens this piece gets a wonderful performance here - a problematic work like this could not ask for anything better, although there have been a few other recordings of Fatum. This is not to say that there is not some very good music in the piece and little pieces of it would emerge later in Swan Lake, the 1812 Overture and the Fourth Symphony, among others. But the work is stifled by an unimaginative rhythmic scheme and not enough material to contrast with the main theme. Still, this is not a work that should be totally forgotten.

All in all, this disc contains some wonderful music. The performances vary from lackluster to totally committed. The recording venue tends to alternate between producing a bland sound overall and emphasizing the more strident elements of the orchestra’s playing. At a bargain price, however, it presents some of the best of the composer’s lesser-known operatic music. In addition, one should not miss the misspelling of the attribution or the cover image.

William Kreindler

see also review by Raymond Walker


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