My First Tchaikovsky Album
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Full contents list at end of review
rec. No details given. DDD
NAXOS 8.578214 [74:47]
This is one of a batch of CDs released together, with more to follow, in a 'My First Album' series. Naxos founder Klaus Heymann declares this to be "one of our most important projects with music for children." The aim will be that parents buy these "albums" for their young children and get them interested in real music before the omnipresent media ruthlessly drown it out with commercial pop. Maybe Heymann would not put it quite like that, but art music, driven to the peripheries of culture by neo-liberal globalisation and post-modernisation, certainly needs as many initiatives like this as it can get, even to maintain its parlous position in the collective consciousness. What a pity these CDs are not given away by national health services to every new mother!
Each disc consists of around 15 to 25 pieces of music - bleeding chunks, to be sure - that have been specially selected (as they say) as a gentle but inspiring introduction to the subject matter: in this case Tchaikovsky. On other volumes it’s ballet, the violin, the lullaby, ‘classical music’ and so on. This is the first dedicated to a composer rather than a theme, with Mozart and Beethoven volumes already on the way.
Virtually all the music consists of single movements drawn from larger works. Throughout the series a few tracks are marked with the dread word 'extract', or as here, 'opening': the music is ignominiously faded down like a pop song, which can only be counted as a black mark against the project. If these CDs are to be "the ideal springboard for a lifelong journey through classical music", then surely children should understand from the outset that it is not meant to be faded? That full works are also frequently lengthy is not a lesson that will be learnt here either. The average timing comes in around the three-minute mark, but this is something probably wisely left for older children, with the two six-minute-odd pieces on this disc at least pointing in the right direction.
The CD booklets are attractively designed with youngsters in mind, with a fairy-tale-style pencil/pastel drawing on the cover and many smaller colourful ones on every page - in this volume inevitably including a swan and a Cossack. Inside, after a brief introduction to the subject - 150 words or so - each item on the disc is allotted a 'Keyword', such as 'Grand', 'Christmas', 'Four', 'Magic' or 'Tckaikovsky at the Piano'. Then follows a paragraph of description, in straightforward language that should be intelligible to children as young as five or six, and unpatronising up to about ten or eleven. The texts enlarge on some of the things going on in the music, either as heard in the instruments or in the story itself, generally with a mention of the mood of the piece and often asking the child to listen out for or do something, such as "Can you clap its 1-2-3, 1-2-3 rhythm?" There is often at least one exclamation mark in every paragraph!
Tucked away at the back of the booklet can be found details of performers, rightly judged to be of little importance to nascent listeners, but a necessary reference for parents wishing to delve further into the music, whether on their child's behalf or perhaps - why not - for themselves. There is one misprint that should amuse children: "There are 12 seasons in the year, so Tchaikovsky wrote 12 little pieces for his piano work The Seasons." Whereas some composers would be amused to read that "a string quartet always has these four instruments: two violins, one viola [...] and one cello".
As far as the recordings themselves are concerned, it must be said that Naxos have drawn widely on the back catalogue bargain basement. Some are twenty years old or more and their age often shows itself in the thin or tinny quality of the audio, such as in the Ondr(ej Lenárd orchestral recordings or some of the piano pieces. On the other hand, the intended audience is not hardcore audiophiles but children, who will probably not notice, and some recordings have aged more gracefully. Still, there seems no obvious reason why Naxos did not use newer, better recordings here - it is hard to see how there could be any copyright issues when all the music comes from their own releases. Perhaps the idea was, quite understandably, to wring a few more sales out of old stock.

Some of the programme choices - "famous tracks as well as unexpected gems" - seem a bit wilful or baffling: it is hard to imagine many children being captivated by 'O Sing that Song'. Listeners are bound to come away with the erroneous impression that Tchaikovsky mainly wrote waltzes. Instead Naxos might have included the finale of the 1812 Overture or a section of the Mozartiana Suite or the Rococo Variations, not to mention the Andante cantabile from the First String Quartet instead of the Two Movements, for maximum impact. On the whole, and in smaller, six-year-old-sized doses, there is probably enough here to keep children entertained. What happens then is up to parents. For starters they can find more Tchaikovsky on 'My First Ballet Album' (8.578205).
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Enough here to keep children entertained. What happens then is up to parents.

Full contents list
a Overture (from: The Nutcracker) [3:24]
a Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy (from: The Nutcracker) [1:47]
a Dance of the Toy Flutes (from: The Nutcracker) [2:23]
b Waltz (from: Serenade in C, for strings, op.48) [3:53]
c O Sing that Song (from: Six Romances, op.16, arr. for piano) [3:00]
k None but the Lonely Heart (from: Six Romances, op.16, arr. for piano) [3:26]
d Nocturne in C sharp minor, op.19 no.4 (arr. for cello & orchestra) [4:48]
e Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso (excerpt) (from: Piano Concerto no.1, op.23) [3:13]
f Waltz (from: Eugene Onegin) [6:21]
g April: Snowdrop (from: The Seasons, op.37b) [2:24]
g May: May Nights (from: The Seasons, op.37b) [3:51]
h Cossack Dance (from: Cherevichki) [3:21]
i Nathalie-Valse, for piano [1:10]
j Allegretto in E (from: Four Movements, for string quartet) [1:08]
j Allegro vivace in B flat (from: Four Movements, for string quartet) [1:37]
l Goblet Dance (from: Swan Lake) [3:57]
l Spanish Dance (from: Swan Lake) [2:09]
m Natha-Valse (from: Six Pieces, for piano, op.51) [3:10]
n Allegro moderato (from: Symphony no.5, op.64) [5:38]
o Sad Song (from: Twelve Pieces, op.40, arr. for violin & orchestra) [3:24]
o Russian Dance (from: Twelve Pieces, op.40, arr. for violin & orchestra) [2:31]
p Panorama (from: Sleeping Beauty) [2:42]
p Waltz (from: Sleeping Beauty) [4:34]
a,l Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra / Michael Halász
b Vienna Chamber Orchestra / Philippe Entremont
c,i,m Oxana Yablonskaya (piano)
d Maria Kliegel (cello)
d National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland / Gerhard Markson
e Joseph Banowetz (piano)
e,f,p Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra / Ondr(ej Lenárd
g Ilona Prunyi (piano)
h Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra / Theodore Kuchar
j New Haydn String Quartet
k Péter Nagy (piano)
n Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Antoni Wit
o Takako Nishizaki (violin)
o Queensland Symphony Orchestra / Peter Breiner