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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Seasons, op. 37b (1875-1876) arr. two guitars [44:15]
Grigoryan Brothers (guitars)
rec. Sing Sing, Melbourne, Australia, December 2011
MATERIAL RECORDS MRE041 [44:15]

The Seasons aspires to be no more than a set of salon pieces, tuneful and pretty, sometimes garnished with a mild picturesqueness ..., at others breathing a light pathos that must have prompted many a dewy-eyed response in many a drawing room ... [They are] production line creations in that each item was composed within a single day as an act of will rather than creative impulse ...
(David Brown Tchaikovsky [London, 1992], vol. 2 pp. 123-124 and vol. 4 p. 414.)
 
David Brown appears to damn The Seasons with faint praise. That said he also concedes that even these journeyman productions - with the possible exception of May, where Tchaikovsky may have been having a really “off” month - bear some characteristic signs of the composer's genius, even if it may have been operating at a comparatively low level at the time.
 
Written for a target audience of amateur pianists to perform at home, their lack of technical challenges has rendered these twelve short pieces - each depicting a month rather than a season - of relatively little interest to professional pianists or to "serious" listeners. Given, too, the fact that they were originally written largely piecemeal and then published in dribs and drabs at monthly intervals rather than as a unified whole, their disparate musical nature has also militated against their popularity. When artists of even the highest calibre have performed or recorded them from time to time, they have generally made no great claims for their profundity. Reviewing a live 1966 recital by Sviatoslav Richter (BBC Legends BBCL4082-2), my colleague Christopher Howell hit the nail on the head when he observed with approval that it was enough that "Richter ... plays no tricks. The music is presented as it appears on the page". He was nevertheless delighted to find that the pianist played it "as beautifully as possible...".
 
Attempts have been made, over the years, to increase appreciation of the work by setting it for various ensembles. Soviet conductor Aleksandr Gauk prepared a version for full orchestra in 1942. He has since been followed by contemporary composer David Matthews. Meanwhile, re-workings for piano and orchestra have appeared from Morton Gould and Georgii Cherkin and another for violin and orchestra from Peter Breiner. Recordings of some other arrangements - including piano trio and flute quartet - may be found listed in a useful web page produced by the Tchaikovsky Research project. That page, incidentally, is well worth printing off to replace the useless booklet that comes with this disc, for the latter does nothing but reprint the various verses that “inspired” each month’s piano piece and gives the reader no background information or commentary whatsoever.
 
This new account of The seasons for two guitars comes from Australia-based brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, about whom more may be discovered here. On this occasion their father Edward has been responsible for arranging Tchaikovsky’s score and one imagines that he has done so with his sons' own capabilities and artistic inclinations particularly in mind. Grigoryan père's version has been well executed and presents the music in a most attractive new light, even if it is one that, by the very nature of the instruments utilised, frequently - though certainly not unattractively - communicates the balmy airs of Madrid rather than the brisker breezes of Moscow. The opening January gives a good indication right from the start of what the brothers bring to the table as they and their instruments produce an enhanced atmosphere of wistful Romantic fantasy, alongside which the version for solo piano can sound comparatively prosaic.
 
Taken overall, the Grigoryans' performance is atmospheric, imaginatively coloured and thoroughly engaging. I suspect, however, that even their expert advocacy may not be enough on its own to propel The seasons onto a much wider stage. Tchaikovsky himself may not always have been the best judge of his own work, but he was surely correct in his modest assessment of this particular work.
 
This disc is, essentially, a showcase for the talented Grigoryan brothers and would, I imagine, make an appropriate souvenir purchase for anyone attending one of their wide-ranging recitals which, in the first seven months of this year alone, took in venues in China, Bosnia, Austria, the UK, Israel, Russia, Cyprus and Spain, as well as many others in Australia itself. Enjoyable though it certainly is – in spite of its niggardly running time – its particular appeal as a stand-alone purchase will be, I imagine, primarily to devotees of the classical guitar rather than the general listener.
 
Rob Maynard