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Boris TCHAIKOVSKY (1925 – 1996)
Piano Concerto (1971)a [34:39]
Clarinet Concerto (1957)b [11:52]
Signs of the Zodiac (1974)c [23:35]
Olga Solovieva (piano)a; Anton Prischepa (clarinet)b; Yana Ivanilova (soprano)c; Irina Goncharova (harpsichord)c
Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra/Timur Mynbaev
rec. Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, May 2005
NAXOS 8.557727 [70:06]
Thanks to the tireless efforts and dedication of the Boris Tchaikovsky Society his music is now reasonably well represented in the catalogue. Most of those recorded performances are drawn from the Society’s archives; none the worse for that.
This release offers modern recordings of three works spanning some twenty-five years of Tchaikovsky’s composing career. It provides an interesting outline of his musical progress.
The Clarinet Concerto is the earliest work here. Scored for strings, three trumpets and timpani, and playing for less than a quarter of an hour, it is more a concertino than a concerto. This early piece already displays the Tchaikovsky hallmarks. Its three concise movements do not adhere to the traditional pattern. There is a moderately fast movement followed by two fast ones, and no real slow movement. As I remarked when reviewing another recording of it (Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9918 - see review), the music is generally light-hearted and playful, often bringing Malcolm Arnold to mind, particularly in the carefree third movement. Mere coincidence, I suppose, but this gives a good idea of what to expect from this delightful work.
By contrast, the Piano Concerto is more substantial and is in five movements. It is a major work from the composer’s mature years. As in some other mature pieces by Tchaikovsky, the music is elusive and sometimes enigmatic. However, it is not intrinsically difficult. It is not avant-garde music at all. The difficulty rather lies in the disparity of its components which can seem difficult to reconcile and put into perspective. In fact, Tchaikovsky’s large-scale works are often laid-out in a rather kaleidoscopic manner favouring abrupt contrasts. This factor makes a global view of the whole work not readily perceptible. The first movement plays with a stubborn rhythmical gesture that is not developed as such, but varied by the ever-changing orchestral environment. The second movement, in complete contrast, is a beautiful song-like reverie with an important part for double bass. The third movement is an obstinate Scherzo, alternating ghost-like episodes and furious, sardonic outbursts from the percussion. The fourth movement opens with galloping hunting horns, soon imitated by piano and orchestra. Formally, this movement is roughly laid-out as a varied Rondo, with some brilliant piano writing. The final movement looks back at the first movement; it too is based on a simple rhythmic pattern resourcefully varied throughout. A remarkable feature of this highly idiosyncratic music is the composer’s predilection for the horn section, something that may be heard regularly in many of his works (e.g. Chamber Symphony, Second Symphony, Sebastopol Symphony and Symphony with Harp, to name but a few). Moreover, if Shostakovich’s imprint may be discerned from time to time, it is worth noting that the music is strongly personal throughout this imposing, if puzzling major work.
On the other hand, the cantata Signs of the Zodiac does not pose so many questions. Formally, it resembles Gerald Finzi’s cantata Dies Natalis: an orchestral prelude presenting the main theme of each of the vocal settings that follow. The disparate element, here is the selection of the poems, covering some one hundred years of Russian poetry; Britten did that sort of things too. The first setting is of Tyutchev’s Silentium! with words that might have come from a disillusioned Soviet poet’s pen: “Be silent, keep away, and hide/Your feelings and your dreams ...”. The setting of Blok’s Far Out reflects the irony of the poet’s words: the living world as heard by those far out (in their graves), under “the coffin-lid ... our safeguard”. The crux of the cantata is the marvellous, gripping setting of Tsvetaeva’s Cross O’Four Roads in which the poet ponders on her own demise. Typically enough, by Tchaikovsky’s standards, the final setting Signs of the Zodiac (words by Zabolotsky) is deceptively simple, set as a nursery rhyme putting the often black humour of the words into sharp relief. The string writing is masterly throughout, often quite brilliant and remarkably inventive; and thus strongly contrasts with the apparently simple vocal writing. The ambit of the vocal part is often limited, with wider steps used for the sake of emphasis. In many respects the vocal writing compares with that of Tchaikovsky’s other great vocal cycle Lyrics of Pushkin: simplicity resulting in powerful eloquence. Signs of the Zodiac is an unquestionable masterpiece, a deeply moving work that definitely deserves wider exposure and that is likely to gain it with this fine performance. There is not much to choose between this reading and that in the Northern Flowers disc. Both readings are equally committed, eloquent and convincing; but the Naxos recording is cleaner.
Tchaikovsky’s utterly personal music is well served by all concerned; and this very fine release, providing a good introduction to this distinguished composer’s music is well worth having and that would be so even on the strength of Signs of the Zodiac.
Hubert Culot



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