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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Dumka op. 59 [09:00]
The Seasons op. 37b [47:19 including recitations]*
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport K.573 [14:41]
Geoffrey Saba (piano), David Baillie (speaker)*
rec. 26 April 2007, St. John’s, Smith Square, London (Tchaikovsky), 6 May 2006, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London (Mozart)


Experience Classicsonline

Tchaikovsky’s op., 37b is a suite of twelve pieces called “The Seasons”. If this were April 1st I would go on to explain that his op. 37a is a set of four pieces called “The Months”, but nothing’s that simple. Back in my student days I picked the suite up second-hand in a Polish edition. The fact that I couldn’t understand the poetic extracts placed by Tchaikovsky at the head of each piece – not that I would have understood the original Russian either – was partially compensated by a series of pretty line drawings that I have open before me as I write.

Geoffrey Saba has had the bright idea of integrating the poetic extracts into the cycle by calling in a distinguished actor to recite them (in English). In a concert this might be a good idea and no doubt David Baillie has sufficient stage presence to make up for the fact that he has very little to do – his contributions are tracked separately and vary from 00:17 to 00:06. On record, one has just adjusted from a music-listening frame of mind to a poetry-listening one when it’s over. Maybe it would have been interesting to dig up the original poems – some by names as distinguished as Pushkin and Tolstoy – and extend the extracts a bit. Or, since they are also printed in the booklet, better just leave them there. Possibly in an attempt to make his mark with only a few words, Baillie seems to me to adopt an over-dramatic delivery. Whatever the matter in hand, he always sounds like King Lear cursing his daughters.

This would be more serious, of course, if the musical side was unmissable, or at least acceptable. Alas, no. On a purely technical level, let me hasten to say, Saba has no difficulty in playing all the notes in this hardly virtuoso but sometimes tricky music. But that is not enough.

Almost contemporaneously with this disc, I have reviewed a disc of Brahms late pieces played by Miquel Farré. I felt obliged to list a few very specific details, which may have appeared too technical for some of my readers, to explain why I felt that, while the disc wasn’t all that bad, it was out of the running given the competition. Here I’m afraid the situation is worse. If no other version of Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons” existed my only advice to readers could be to remain without until something decent came along. And I shall have to explain my reasons, so once again I shall list a small number of specific points. I could list a whole lot more for every piece with the exception of “October” which, while lacking the ideal intensity for its pools of gloom, is quite nicely managed, as is the more taxing “Dumka”.

In “February” – “Carnival” – the opening two bars are played fast and furiously and separated slightly from the next two, which are played in a slower tempo. Since the whole process is immediately repeated – and is so every time this theme reappears – the sense of a joyous dance is undermined. A bit of rhythm is achieved from b.9 but the right-hand/left-hand imitation at bb.27-28 is treated to a drastic accelerando for the right-hand phrase and a drastic pulling back for the left-hand one. Maybe the intention was a proper Peter-pays-Paul rubato but the effect to my ears is just unsettled.

Then in “April” – “Snowdrop” – the over-intrusive and fraught left hand with its continual hurryings robs the music of its wistful elegance. “Un poco rubato” doesn’t mean that, and if you think it does there’s still the “dolce” marking to take into consideration and there’s no “dolcezza” here. Nor is there any “grazia” in the next section – from b.25 – as Saba whooshes up the rising scale with a bang at the top.

In “July” – “Reaper’s Song” – the melody in the middle of the texture from bb.15-18 does not emerge properly and the music degenerates into mere noise.

The only other complete “Seasons” I had to hand was that by Xiang-Dong Kong (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 62520 2 if still available). Without being exceptional this offers a very reasonable account at least until the last two pieces where he, too, starts to maul the music around. “Troika”, the best-known of these miniatures, seems to have suffered from the shadow of Rachmaninov’s highly personalized interpretation. Not even Richter could bring himself to play the music as written, though I seem to remember Michael Ponti did. Lack of imagination can have its advantages at times.

The really strange thing is that this chaotic, rhythmically messy playing is followed by a performance of Mozart’s “Duport” Variations which shows that Saba can play with real rhythmic discipline and shapely phrasing. I would query the amount of pedal he uses towards the end but some might prefer this fairly full-blooded Mozart. The point is that this performance is of a completely acceptable professional level – at the very least – while the Tchaikovsky is not. Since Saba proves to be capable of genuinely rhythmic playing I have to suppose that he plays Tchaikovsky this way, not because he can’t do it any other way, but because he has some sort of concept of rubato which I am unable to share. I feel he should listen again to his “Seasons” as coldly and critically as he can and ask himself whether he has really achieved what he intended. Alternatively, readers can check out “February” and “April” in particular and see if the points I make worry them. If not, though, I would beg them to hear a few alternatives too; they may enjoy them even more.

Christopher Howell 



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