Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Snow Maiden – incidental music to the play by Ostrovsky (1873) [72:34]
Natalia Erassova (mezzo); Alexander Archipov (tenor); Nikolai Vassiliev (baritone)
Russian State Chorus and Orchestra/Andrei Chistiakov
rec. Moscow 1994
full track-list at end of review

With three symphonies and the First Piano Concerto behind him Tchaikovsky was on the brink of the Fourth and Manfred. The present set of incidental music – a series of vignettes which perhaps formed some schematic for Sibelius’s Tempest and Glazunov’s King of the Jews – was written for the play by Alexandr Ostrovsky (1823-1886). This was the same Ostrovsky whose writings were the inspiration for.Tchaikovsky’s tone poem The Storm and his opera The Voyevoda. Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Snegurotchka is based on the same play as Tchaikovsky’s incidental music. The competition is not numerous. There’s a full price Chandos item from Neeme Jarvi on CHAN 9324. Add to this the pioneering complete version by Gauk tucked away as CD 8 in a Brilliant Classics box. At the price there is nothing comparable available. But this is not a case of faute de mieux. This is an exuberantly vivid performance and recording which in Chistiakov’s hands makes the most of the variegated delights offered by 20 miniature pen-portraits, songs and atmosphere pieces. It seems that the premiere production of the play complete with orchestral contribution came to 15000 roubles ran to only nine evenings and then disappeared. The note reminds us that Tchaikovsky recycled some of the music for his score for Hamlet in 1891 but his ambition was to fashion an opera from this material. Tchaikovsky persisted with operas as a form throughout his career but only struck gold with Onegin. The opera never transpired. That said, we should not disdain this vernally enchanting score with its orchestral essays, its choral-solo dialogues as in the chant-based Carnival Procession and its supernatural aspects. Its music is often carefree as in the effervescent and soulful Melodrama and wistfully piping Interlude. The exuberant second song for Lehl (tr.8) rushes but its tongue twisting does not cause Erassova any trouble. Quite a few of the tracks have a greater impress of Russian nationalism than we might expect given Tchaikovsky’s rejection of the style in favour of a more hyper-personal dramatic approach. Some of the tracks are balletic others bring out pathos in a way typical of this composer. The occasional concession to bombast can be forgiven in the face of so much charm. It would perhaps have made progress in the concert hall had Tchaikovsky made a 25 minute suite from these episodes. The liner-notes are by Malcolm Macdonald.

Rob Barnett

Variegated delights: miniature pen-portraits, songs and atmosphere pieces.

Full track listing:
1. Introduction [4:50]
2. Dance and Choruses of the Birds [5:50]
3. Winter’s Monologue [3:15] (tenor)
4. Carnival Procession [6:50] (baritone)
5. Melodrama [2:00]
6. Interlude [1:15]
7. Lehl’s First Song [3:50] (mezzo)
8. Lehl’s Second Song [1:25] (mezzo)
9. Interlude [3:00]
10. Chant of the Blind Bards [4:00] (baritone)
11. Melodrama [4:00]
12. Chorus of the People and the Courtiers [2:10]
13. Round of the Young Maidens [2:25]
14. Dance of the Tumblers [4:40]
15. Lehl’s Third Song [6:40] (mezzo)
16. Brussila’s Song [1:20] (baritone)
17. Apparition of the Spirit of the Wood [0:50]
18. Interlude-The Spring Fairy [4:30]
19. Tsar Berendey’s March and Chorus [6:40]
20. Final Chorus [1:50] (mezzo)