Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete works for cello and orchestra:
Variations on a Rococo Theme op.33 (1877) (original version) [18:30]
Nocturne, op. 19 no. 4 (1886-7) [3:55]
Andante cantabile, op. post. (adapted from the First String Quartet No.1, op.11) (1888) [5:45]
Pezzo capriccioso, op. 62 (1887) [6:50]
Andante cantabile (adapted from The Sleeping Beauty, op.66) (1889) [4:24]
Serenade for Strings, op 48 (1880) [26:50]
Alexander Rudin (cello)
Ensemble Instrumental Musica Viva/Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Alexander Rudin (serenade)
rec. February 1997, Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, Russia. DDD

For someone who did not play the cello, Tchaikovsky wrote a fair amount of music for the instrument. This comprises two original works, the Rococo Variations and the Pezzo Capriccioso, and two transcriptions for cello that he made from earlier works. Tchaikovsky’s arrangements are supplemented on this disc by the cello solo from Swan Lake, and the well-known Serenade for Strings in C major. Nicolai Alexeiev is the conductor in all items except for the Serenade, in which the orchestra is conducted by Rudin.
The Rococo Variations is a well-known work, but is presented here in a somewhat less familiar guise. Tchaikovsky wrote this work for the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who made extensive changes to the work as it first appeared; this is the version that is most often recorded. The Fitzenhagen version reshuffles the order of the variations, omits one altogether, and puts the cadenza much closer to the end of the work. Both versions have something to recommend them, and it is one of the virtues of this recording that it gives listeners a chance to hear what Tchaikovsky originally wrote. The Rococo Variations is an elegant work without much emotional depth; as the title suggests it pays hommage to the classical period. Its mood varies from melancholy to brilliant and skittish, and the eight variations give the cellist ample opportunity for technical display.
Alexander Rudin’s entry is warm-toned, and he subtly alternates between legato and detached bowing. His playing has great dynamic variety; at its fullest he approaches Rostropovich’s opulence of sound. Rudin employs a few discreet expressive slides, and his intonation is impeccable. This is a polished and eloquent performance. For comparison I listened again to a recording by Julian Lloyd Webber from the 1980s or 1990s, in which he plays with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maxim Shostakovich. Unfortunately the Russian contribution is not enough to enliven this performance, which is rather dull. Neither cellist is really stretched by the work, but Rudin seems to find rather more in it.
The next two pieces on the disc are arrangements by Tchaikovsky from earlier works. The elegiac Nocturne is sourced from the six piano pieces op. 19 of 1873, and the Andante cantabile was originally the slow movement from his String Quartet no. 1 in D, op. 11 of 1871. The latter piece originates from a trip that Tchaikovsky paid to his sister’s estate in the Ukraine; while there he heard a workman whistling a folk melody. This movement was encored at the premiere of the String Quartet, and it proved to be one of his most popular compositions. Rudin plays these pieces in a relaxed way which shows off his beautiful legato playing. The Pezzo Capriccioso is a slightly longer piece originally written for cello and piano, which Tchaikovsky later orchestrated. Rudin handles both the pensive opening and the virtuoso middle section with great skill. The second Andante cantabile presents the cello solo from the Sleeping Beauty ballet of 1889. 

The disc concludes with the Serenade for Strings in C major. As its name (and key) suggest, this is a work of untroubled lyricism, with none of the darker undertones of Tchaikovsky’s major works. Like the Rococo variations, this work harks back to an earlier musical era, particularly in the slow-fast-slow structure of the first movement. I am not quite sure how it belongs on the disc; it has lovely cello tunes, but the same could be said for much of Tchaikovsky’s output. Regardless, this is a fine performance that manages to say something new about this very familiar work. The opening of the first movement is taken noticeably faster than other performances; however, this is within the bounds of its Andante non troppo marking. The Valse reminds one of how Czarist Russia looked to Paris for its artistic models; it manages also to sound quite Russian. This well-known movement is elegantly played, with particularly delightful interplay between the parts. The finale’s folk-sounding themes are freshly presented, and the pizzicatos are very well synchronised.
The comparison here is with Sir John Barbirolli’s 1964 performance with the London Symphony Orchestra, available in the 6 CD set John Barbirolli: the great EMI recordings (EMI 4577672). The sonics in this recording are more constricted, but the performance features some wonderfully full-blooded string playing. Barbirolli shapes an affectionate performance, which unashamedly revels in Tchaikovsky’s brilliant string writing. His tempi are a bit slower than Rudin’s, taking almost exactly a minute longer overall. Rudin’s performance, however, is more graceful, and has the advantage of modern sound. He is placed quite close in the balance in the solo works, and the Russian recording is a little lacking in atmosphere, but the performances more than make up for that.
Fans of Tchaikovsky’s shorter works, or of great cello playing, will find this disc another Brilliant bargain.
Guy Aron 

A very well-played collection of Tchaikovsky’s cello output rounded off with an elegant performance of the Serenade for Strings.