Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Evening (1881) [2:37]
Autumn (1881) [3:39]
Child’s Song (1881) [1:53]
Blessed is he who smiles (1887) [2:08]
Why does the sound of the revels grow silent? (1891) [2:07]
Much too soon in the season (1891) [2:26]
Old French Air (1879) [2:25]
Dawn (1880) [3:42]
Nature and Love (1870) [5:50]
Before Sleep (1863-64) [4:00]
A golden cloud had slept (1887) [2:13]
A greeting to Anton Rubinstein (1889) [2:40]
The Nightingale (1889) [3:40]
It is not the cuckoo (1891) [2:30]
Night (1893) [4:10]
Hymn to Cyril and Methodius (1887) [2:27]
A Legend (1881) [2:31)
Neapolitan Air [2:11]
The Moscow Academy of Choral Singing/Victor Popov
Tamara Kravtchenko (piano) (trs. 8-9, 15)
rec. Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, Russia, February 1997
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94210 [54:11]
Some discs and the music they contain demand a rigorous and detailed review; others can benefit from a lighter touch. This CD falls into the latter group. Not that rare repertoire by Tchaikovsky could ever be dismissed but these pieces for mixed chorus are chips from an often mightier block. At Brilliant Classics’ bargain price this is a very enjoyable, indeed ideal, way to discover this little-investigated aspect of Tchaikovsky’s art.
The recording is nearly fifteen years old and is on the good side of average in engineering terms. The bulk of the pieces are sung a capella but three of the eighteen tracks do feature a piano accompaniment. That instrument is not in the first flush of its youth but is sensitively played by Tamara Kratchenko. It’s set well back on the sound-stage enveloped by the choral group. The Moscow Academy of Choral Singing evince complete stylistic conviction and the performances benefit hugely from their totally idiomatic sound. The men are better than the women with well focused voices across the entire range from the bright high tenors to the lowest reaches of the basses. Not that the women are poor by any means. Their sound is characteristically Slavonic although without the wobble of yesteryear. The weakness is that the attack is not always perfectly unified - several times it sounds as if the same single soprano fractionally anticipates attacks. Also the tone hardens considerably in alt and when the dynamics rise. They do not have the immaculate cultured blend favoured by many western choirs but I have to say I do not miss that for a moment in this repertoire.
That these are minor works is borne out by the fact that the total playing time of the 18 tracks is just 54:11 with the bulk running to less than three minutes. The sequence is well programmed starting with five pieces for men’s voices alone, then five for women’s voices with the remainder for mixed chorus. Don’t expect music of the stature or complexity of the unaccompanied choral works of say Smetana or Janáček. These works are mellifluous, lyrical – grateful to sing in the main, I would guess – ensemble songs. The brief liner makes the point that they are often adaptations of solo songs or duets and the relative lack of complex inner part writing belies that fact. What you do get though is Tchaikovsky’s remarkable melodic gift. Nothing here has the heart-stopping passion of his operas or orchestral works but the easy lyrical flow of Dawn [track 8] is immensely appealing. The emotional range of these songs is somewhat limited – they are written for the salon rather than the concert hall let alone theatre. What is quite interesting to note is that these works range across the bulk of Tchaikovsky’s career from the student Before Sleep [track 10] to Night [track 15] written in the last year of the composer’s life. The stylistic similarity across the years points to the fact that these works were often written to order and therefore with a similar remit.
Highlights are The Nightingale [track 13] which is an expansive a capella setting of a folk-song splitting into up to seven independent parts. The golden cloud had slept [track 11] is to a text by Lermontov which has a chant-like simplicity and fervour. A similar sound-world is inhabited by A Legend [track 17] and with this air of the religious in a secular context it reminds one that Tchaikovsky wrote the first Russian settings of the Liturgy and Vespers. The choir sound particularly at home in these quasi-liturgical works. The Child’s Song [track 3] is another charmer and one of three choruses adapted from the cycle of 16 Children’s Songs Op.54. No texts or translations are supplied with the CD but these are available online – apparently - at www.brilliantclassics.com. As part of writing this review I have tried to locate these texts on the website but cannot find the disc listed let alone the texts! Not that the text matters for the final track which is a wordless vocalise transcription of the Neapolitan Dance from Swan Lake. The idea is that it is one of those ‘witty’ vocal transcriptions but sadly it doesn’t come off too well here with rather mannered careful singing tiptoeing through a familiar melody. At 54 minutes this does feel like rather short measure although that is balanced by the Brilliant Classics price point. None of the music here is life-changing but conversely it is beautifully crafted and – the final track excepted – convincingly performed.
None of the music here is life-changing but it is beautifully crafted and, the final track excepted, convincingly performed.