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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Queen of Spades (1890), Suite (arr. Breiner) [33:15]
Voyevoda (1867-8), Suite (arr. Breiner) [32:59]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
rec. 2012, Michael Fowler Center, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.573015 [66:22]

“Opera for orchestra” retains a slightly unsavory odor in some quarters, perhaps because of old associations with light-music conductors and supermarket LPs. But this Naxos program is attractive: the music isn’t all that common, and Tchaikovsky’s broad, affecting melodies and richly coloured orchestral writing make their effect even in the absence of solo voices.

The composer destroyed the manuscript of his first opera, Voyevoda, recycling some of it into The Oprichnik; The Da Capo Catalog of Classical Music Compositions (Da Capo Press, New York, 1996) lists just two orchestral excerpts, though the complete opera has, according to Keith Anderson’s program note and Wikipedia, been reconstructed from sketches and surviving parts. The selections here reflect Tchaikovsky’s earlier style, in the generally uncomplicated textures and the folk-influenced tunes and rhythms -- in the ‘Mariya Vlasevna’ number (track 8), note the fugue subject and, at 2:17, the sprightly minore oboe theme; the lilting, modal clarinet theme of the ‘Dance of the Hay Girls’ (track 12) sounds like Slavic Schubert. There’s also the use of sequential repetitions, as in Bastryukov’s Aria (track 9), to build tension, although the composer would never completely abandon this device -- it comes into play even in the last two symphonies.

The Queen of Spades, based on Pushkin, would seem to be another matter -- an acknowledged masterpiece, often mentioned in the same breath as Eugene Onegin -- but it is respected more than it’s actually mounted, even by the major companies. The music is recognizably in Tchaikovsky’s mature style, its broad lyric themes hovering ambivalently between affirmation and brooding melancholy: the big tune of ‘Hermann's Arioso’ (track 2) and the plaintive flute solo in ‘Beauty! Goddess!’ (track 7) could just as easily have fitted into Onegin. Russian folk elements are still present -- the infectious ‘Russian Dance and Romance’ (track 3) reminded me of Nutcracker’s ‘Mother Gigogne and the Clowns’ -- though it is less prominent.

For Peter Breiner, the arranger and conductor, this obviously constituted a labour of love. His work in both capacities is creditable, but falls short on a few small points. The ‘Overture/Finale’ from Voyevoda and two purely orchestral dances presumably required minimal tinkering, and come off well. The rest are arrangements of vocal numbers: mostly arias, along with a duet from Voyevoda. In these, the contrast between the voice and an instrumental answer is blunted when the vocal line is reassigned to another orchestral instrument or section; the resulting textures can feel somehow cluttered, as Tchaikovsky’s own never are.

As conductor, Breiner mostly displays a fine feel for this music’s expressive give-and-take, notably in ‘Hermann’s Aria and Finale’ and when building the climax of ‘Beauty! Goddess!’ The start of ‘Tomsky's Song’ (track 5) is cheerful and open; the final tutti of that ‘Overture/Finale’ is rousing. Sometimes, however, the tonal weight and solidity can impede the music's forward impulse. The conclusion of that ‘Russian Dance’, for example, is brilliant but stolid, and the buildup in the ‘Dance of the Hay Girls’ gets a bit stuck, though its coda whirls impressively.

The New Zealand Symphony plays with polished, full-throated commitment; in the lighter textures, woodwind solos are round and expressive. The sound is vivid, if slightly hard-edged at higher playback levels, so this can still be warmly recommended: you just don’t get many opportunities to hear this music, especially the Voyevoda material, and so handsomely presented at that.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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