Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1848-1893)
Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) - Incidental Music Op.12 (1973) [76:27]
Annely Peebo (mezzo-soprano) & Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir / Kristjan Järvi
rec. live, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany, 7 September 2014
SONY 88875 176562 [76:27]

Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to the play “The Snow Maiden” (Snegurochka) by Alexander Ostrovsky comes from 1873. Composer and author were jointly commissioned to write the piece by the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. There was not much time, however. Tchaikovsky completed the 19 numbers of the full score for large orchestra, chorus and soloists in only three weeks. He did that while still working at his day job – twenty-seven hours a week of teaching at the Conservatoire. He even had to work in the evenings, contrary to his usual habit. The work was not very successful, but that was not attributed to Tchaikovsky’s music. The composer’s own judgement, over six years later, was that the piece was “not one of my best works…but is one of my favourite offspring. I think the happy Spring-like mood with which I was filled at the time must be audible in the music.” Having heard this disc a few times, it is difficult not to agree with this judgement. Snegurochka is not on the level of his greatest stage works, and it will never supplant Rimsky-Korsakov’s later opera on the same source, but it is still well worth hearing.

Ostrovsky chose the subject of the play himself, which is based on a Russian folk tale with a familiar theme: a mythical creature longs for a human soul and for love, but in pursuit of that desire is destroyed by the contact with humanity. In Ostrovsky’s version the creature is a snow maiden, daughter of Father Frost and the Spring Fairy, and on finding human love is exposed to the sun’s rays and melts away. The playwright peoples this story with various other characters, providing plenty of opportunity for the composer to include songs, choruses, and instrumental numbers. Tchaikovsky drew on folk songs for several of the numbers – in part because he was in a hurry, but also because that suited the folk origins of the tale. It gives a delightful atmosphere for much of the score, despite some weaker numbers later on when Tchaikovsky was perhaps a bit too rushed and perfunctory in his work, especially in the rather tub-thumping Tsar Berendey's March and Chorus (No.18) and the ensuing finale (No.19). But there are plenty of musical delights to be savoured elsewhere in the hour and a quarter of the score.

Kristjan Järvi and the excellent MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra gave the whole score in concert in 2014, which was an enterprising bit of programming, and this disc is effectively a record of that event. The audience’s cheers and applause are retained at the end, but they are perfectly quiet up until then. There seems to be an extra frisson to several numbers precisely because the orchestra is playing to a live audience. It would be harder to capture the hectic brilliance of the ‘Dance of the Tumblers’ (No.13) in a studio – not as memorable a piece as Rimsky’s famous example, but still a fine opportunity for the players to demonstrate their virtuosity when given their head with a really fast tempo. At the other extreme the strings in No.10, the andantino ‘Melodrama’, are tender and expressive in one of the most touching items in the score. The winds are given as much opportunity as they usually are in a Tchaikovsky score, and relish the many characteristic passages. The bubbling clarinet solo introduction to No.15 (‘Lel’s third song’) is just one such moment.

The two soloists are given five numbers each, and both sound thoroughly idiomatic (and Slavic). The excellent tenor Vsevolod Grivnov has a good ringing tone and sounds as if he loves every bar of his contributions. The mezzo-soprano Annely Peebo is characterful enough, but a bit less secure and rather blowsy at times. The MDR Leipzig Radio Chorus have a role in eight numbers, and despite the odd mistuning, generally manage somehow to impersonate the folk of a 19th century Russian village as if they had sprung from the soil.

Kristjan Järvi's conducting is passionate and committed, and he has thoroughly prepared his musicians. Of course, as so often he has competition on disc from his own father, as Neeme Järvi recorded the score with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for Chandos’s 1994 release, still in the catalogue and much admired. (It also has the texts of the many vocal numbers, unlike this Sony release.) But Järvi fils has done a fine job too, and Sony's recording captures well what sounds like a great occasion at the Gewandhaus.

Roy Westbrook

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