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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Dances and Overtures

The Queen of Spades, overture (1890) [3:58]
Fatum – symphonic poem, Op. 77 (1868) [15:58]
The Voyevoda, overture (1868) [9:21]
The Maid of Orleans (1881): (Entr’acte, Act II [3:22]; Danse des Bohémiens [3:44]; Danse des Polichinelles [4:21])
Cherevichki (The Slippers) (1876/1887): Danse Russe [3:52]; Danse des Cosaques [3:26])
The Enchantress (1887): (Introduction [5:31]; Danse des Histrions [3:56])
Mazeppa, Gopak (1884) [4.21]
The Oprichnik, Danses (1874) [5:47]
National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Rec. Grand Concert Studio, National Radio Company of the Ukraine, Kiev, 18-20 December 2000. DDD
NAXOS 8.554845 [67:36]


The overtures and dance music found here are interesting since the pieces are taken from Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known operas; he wrote twelve in total. However, the sound of this music is more akin to that robust Russian style favoured by the ‘Big Five’ with dances of heavy construction and somewhat remote from the familiar gentleness found in Tchaikovsky’s ballet music.
 
A welcome inclusion is the reconstruction of the symphonic poem, Fatum, even though it does not relate to any of the operas. The music was destroyed by Tchaikovsky in 1869, following criticism by Balakirev who conducted its first performance; yet was reassembled after Tchaikovsky’s death. It is a charming piece with an endearing romantic theme. It contrasts delicate Germanic decoration with the ‘fate’ motifs’ of his last three symphonies. It is suggested that it has the characteristics of a Liszt rhapsody, and I agree. Here the nuances are sensitively handled by Kuchar.
 
The opera, Voyevoda, was destroyed by the composer after its meagre five performances, though apparently he utilized some of its material for later operas. The overture here assembles strong Russian themes with a colour that symbolizes national identity. A rather flaccid hymn-like opening horn passage tends to become rather repetitious with endless variations, despite interesting undercurrents of activity. In places you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Mussorgsky. Eventually this descends into a dreamy, yet continually moving, section. Although the notes don’t say, The Oprichnik dances were recycled from Voyevoda six years later. I find that a short passage in the overture anticipates one of the dance themes, complete with similar orchestration.
 
Best known is The Maid of Orleans which adopts some Western traits, especially the descriptive Entr’acte. Stirring opening fanfares, that later reappear, move us to an emotional poetic section with a hint of Swan Lake and a surprise ending. The dances are robustly written, the Bohemian one having broken rhythms that do not aid the imagination.
 
Cherevichki (The Slippers) is Tchaikovsky’s only comic opera, and concerns the village antics of the Devil. It must be said that there seems hardly any material resembling true comedy and to me the Russian dance - written in a minor key - is uninspired. Much better is the well flavoured and more uplifting Cossack dance.
 
The Enchantress introduction is atmospheric with tremolo strings punctuated with heavy percussion chords before breaking into a majestic final section that sets the scene for Act I.
Again the dance is robust and strongly Russian in character although carrying some degree of monotony.
 
In contrast the vivacious Mazeppa Gopak is skilfully written with bright and generous colour, as well as engaging rhythms.
 
The National Symphony Orchestra of Urkraine is first class and truly at home with this music. There is particularly excellent playing in the wind sections and Kuchar’s lively pace holds one’s attention. Informative notes are provided in English and German.

Raymond Walker

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