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Boris TCHAIKOVSKY (1925-1996)
Piano Quintet (1962) [36.35]
The War Suite (1964/2011)* (ed. Elena Astafieva and Stanislav Prokudin) [30.12]
Olga Solovieva (piano)
Maxim Anisimov (clarinet)
The Vanbrugh Quartet (Gregory Ellis (violin I), Keith Pascoe (violin II), Ionna Petcu-Colan (violin II), Simon Aspell (viola), Christopher Marwood (cello))
rec. Studio 1, Russian State TV and Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, 2012; Mosfilm Ton-Studios, Moscow, 2013.
World première recording*
NAXOS 8.573207 [66.47]

Although I attend a considerable number of concerts/recitals each season I can’t recall a single occasion when a Boris Tchaikovsky work has appeared. The nearest I got was about a decade ago at my local chamber music society when the visiting string quartet in the second half curiously gave the audience a show-of-hands choice between a performance of a work by Boris Tchaikovsky or one by Alfred Schnittke. It was the Schnittke quartet that was chosen.

Moscow-born Tchaikovsky studied at the Moscow Conservatory in 1943/49. His list of teachers there included Nikolai Miaskovsky, Lev Oborin, Vissarion Shebalin and Dmitri Shostakovich. Despite the toxic atmosphere for composers who didn’t pursue the party line Tchaikovsky strongly followed his own path and his influences are wide-ranging. He is no mere imitator but occasionally I can hear echoes of his teachers Shostakovich and slightly less from Miaskovsky and Shebalin but nothing too consistently obvious.

This new Naxos release of works dating from the early 1960s shows two different sides of this fascinating, multi-faceted composer. Written in 1962 the four movement Piano Quintet is immediately accessible - a work of emotional depth combining intense repression with occasional glimpses of stark beauty. The opening Moderato is determined and gravely serious, infused with a heavy sense of anxiety. Movement two marked Allegro - Largo has an overriding mood of unyielding tension. The following Allegro has a theme and variations incessantly driven forward by rage and resentment. Generally calm and undemanding, the Finale - Adagio has a strong sense of isolation. I can easily imagine the scene of a solitary figure in a room whiling away the time; maybe in a prison cell.

Boris Tchaikovsky wrote the film score to While Defending the Front Line (1964). The film was directed by Yuli Fait and followed the typical Soviet Russian predilection for patriotism/heroism in wartime braced with camaraderie and love interest. At the director’s request the soundtrack was scored sparely for string quartet with the composer adding a clarinet part (exchanged for a guitar in three movements). Thought lost the soundtrack after considerable searching was eventually located in the St. Petersburg Central Archive for Literature and Arts. In 2011 two of Tchaikovsky’s former pupils Elena Astafieva and Stanislav Prokudin compiled and edited the soundtrack into The War Suite. This is in eleven movements and is heard here for string quartet and clarinet — no guitar is used. The assembled movements do not follow the order of action in the film but follow a sequence considered most appropriate for concert performance. According to the information in the liner-notes this is a world première recording. Despite my initial reservations, using a clarinet quintet for the soundtrack worked well with a number of especially effective movements. With prominent parts for both cello and clarinet the opening movement Waltz (Farewell) has a haunting quality. The surging and relentless power of movement five — Tanks — is full of malevolent hostility. In movement seven — Country House — the clarinet takes centre-stage and features a melody of stark beauty with an unsettling undertow. Threatening, scurrying figures and muted pizzicato predominate in movement ten, The Battle and the cheerfully uplifting waltz in the short Finale (Appointment) comes as a welcome relief after all that pain and anxiety.

Both works were recorded during the trips the Vanbrugh Quartet made to Moscow with the support of Culture Ireland. The sound engineers have secured pleasing results at both studios. There is an interesting and informative booklet essay by Louis Blois which is a model of good practice.

All the musicians play with convincing ensemble and attractive tone. The performances are both committed and intelligent and the Piano Quintet is particularly engaging. This disc is a most accessible and agreeable way of exploring the music of Boris Tchaikovsky. For those wanting to hear more there is a recommendable recording of the appealing Clarinet Concerto on Naxos 8.557727 and also worth investigating, although considerable more challenging is the thorny Violin Concerto on Hänssler Profil PH11047.

One hopes that the Vanbrugh Quartet could return to the chamber music of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and add to its recordings of the String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 on Hyperion (review review review).

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Steve Arloff