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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Piano Sonatas

Sonata No. 1 in F minor (1863-4) [10:52]
Sonata No. 2 in C-sharp minor Op. 80 (1865) [27:13]
Sonata No. 3 in G-major Op. 37 [1878] Grand Sonata [29:27]
Leslie Howard (piano)
rec. All Saints, Petersham, 9-10 November 1993. DDD
First released as Hyperion CDA66939
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55215 [66:32]



Leslie Howardís Hyperion recording of all the Tchaikovsky works that could be labeled "sonatas" first appeared in the mid-nineties and has now been re-released in the lower-priced Helios line. The fact that it took a comparatively short amount of time for this disc to make the jump to Helios may have more to do with Hyperionís current woes than with the popularity of the disc, which has always been extremely well-received. In any case this recording remains the standard for the second sonata and indeed the only one of the first.

Before going further, we should attend to the numbering of the sonatas, especially as most people only know "the Tchaikovsky sonata". The first is actually 172 bars of an incomplete first movement that Leslie Howard has extended to nearly twice its length to complete. The second was written a year after the first and gained its late opus number when Taneyev published various unknown works after the composerís death. It is a complete four movement work with a few surprises. The Grand Sonata has always been known as the major work in the composerís pianistic output.

The F minor sonata gets off to an interesting start that is soon clouded with Schumannesque harmonies. Howard plays it for all itís worth, his forceful pianism almost hiding the place in the development section where the original material breaks off. In spite of the influence of Schumann, this fragment shows that Tchaikovsky has produced a work which distinctly foreshadows those to come.

As we said above, the sonata Op. 80 was written only a year after the F minor work. But the composer had grown a lot in that year. The harmony is more individual and the writing seems better suited to the piano; pace those who feel that Tchaikovsky couldnít write for the instrument. The main theme of the allegro may remind one of Beethoven and Schubert, but the material is handled in an individualistic way, especially the contrast between the themes. The andante is an early example of the composer in his "None but the Lonely Heart" mode, with a Schumann twinge added. Formally, it is an alternation between this sentimental material and various mazurka-like passages. Here Howard does his best to differentiate between the various sections without losing sight of the overall movement. He handles the development of the first theme at 5:04 extremely well. In the short scherzo that follows I felt that Howardís ability to differentiate failed him, but this was my only major complaint with his playing of the sonata. The trio of this movement is the one that was later transposed a half step and slightly altered to become the trio in the scherzo of Symphony No.1, but it is quite moving in its original form. The fourth movement follows without a break and begins with a not too exciting display of rhetoric, with more influences of Schumann. However, Tchaikovsky develops his material in an increasingly interesting fashion until it becomes a noble finale that avoids bombast. Leslie Howard handles the development of the movement with both the strength and childlike whimsy that were to be two of the composerís hallmarks.

The Grand Sonata has been recorded many times and really needs no introduction. I have always preferred the versions made by Sviatoslav Richter in 1954 and 1956. His combination of power and poignancy (see above) produced extremely well-balanced performances. Leslie Howard has a somewhat similar approach, although I think he leans more to the poignancy. But there is plenty of strength in his performance and as in the second sonata he shows a great ability to develop individual sections of a movement while not losing sight of the whole. Although heís best known for his titanic Liszt cycle, this disc would have to count as one of his best and also put him in the top rank of Tchaikovsky interpreters. The transfer from the original Hyperion disc is fine and the pianist contributes some interesting thoughts in the program notes. If only for the Op. 80 sonata, this is a record to have.

William Kreindler

 



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