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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Grande Sonate in G major, Op. 37 [31:25]
Nocturne, Op. 19 No. 4 [3:08]
Humoresque, Op. 10 No. 2 [2:42]
Feuillet d’album, Op. 19 No. 3 [1:42]
Doumka, Op. 59 [7:52]
Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 80 [26:22]
Nicola Meecham (piano)
rec. 2012, St George’s Bristol, UK

If you think of all the major composers who have contributed one or more piano concertos to the repertoire, it would be quite difficult to cite one of them whose music for solo piano isn’t also well known – with one notable exception, it seems. Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is arguably one of the best-loved examples of the genre, up there with similar works by Grieg and Rachmaninov, and, before them, Mozart and Beethoven. But even with his Second Piano Concerto now gaining greater recognition, and being performed more frequently, Tchaikovsky’s quite extensive repertoire for the solo instrument still remains largely peripheral. In his excellent sleeve notes to this new CD of the composer’s piano music, Robert Matthew-Walker poses this very question at the start, and, clearly a great devotee of, and advocate for Tchaikovsky’s music for the solo instrument, seeks to reinforce his opinion when discussing the individual works. With a phrase like ‘…that makes the sonata so immediately impressive’ Matthew-Walker might be seen to be leading the jury, but, at the end of the day, as in any courtroom, the verdict should be arrived at after hearing all the evidence – in this case, of the musical variety.

In fact, the opening of the Grande Sonate that introduces the CD, and is the section referred to by Matthew-Walker above, has a certain stirring march-like character to it – it is marked ‘Moderato e risoluto’ (Moderately and resolutely) – it is also reminiscent of the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 17 some thirty years later, here marked ‘Alla Marcia’ (In the style of a march), but whereas Rachmaninov’s soldiers appear to have a clear direction in which to march, Tchaikovsky’s route seems more repetitive and convoluted – and with many stop-offs along the way, at times almost like a cadenza, but where the orchestra never appears. The constant interruptions in the flow, and some of the harmonic juxtapositions work well in the orchestral, or concerto frame-work, because Tchaikovsky was an outstanding orchestrator with a wonderful feel for colour, But the often-thick voicings don’t always translate as well to the solo instrument, and whereas the texture he often arrives at, once he’s tried most others – namely a melody doubled two octaves apart – feels clichéd after a while. It works so much better in the orchestral situation, where distinct and contrasting timbres become available.

The ensuing Scherzo does represent an effective piece of writing, and at just ten seconds over three minutes, is brief and very much to the point. Despite any thematic connections it might appear to have with the other movements of this sonata, it could just as easily be a standalone piece in the composer’s charming collection of miniatures. Likewise, while there is some clear connection between the brisk Finale and the opening movement, at little over six minutes, this might also do double duty as a standalone Allegro vivace in G. The piano writing is certainly exciting, and virtuosic in the main, even if the close, approached over an extended tonic pedal rather seems to fizzle out, and the final rhythmic use of the tonic chord makes me think of ‘Here, comes, the bride!’, every time I hear it.

Tchaikovsky is still better-known for his miniatures, as far as his output for solo piano is concerned, and the four pieces recorded next are perfect examples of the genre. The Nocturne and Feuillet d’album both come from his Op. 19 set of six pieces. The first is marked ‘Andante sentimentale’, which hints at its intimate, rather than public sense of expression, and is probably the best-loved of the set – my first encounter, in fact, was many years ago, when it was set as an exam piece at one of the higher grades, confirming that, while it isn’t a simple piece, it’s certainly within the grasp of the accomplished amateur, as, too, is the Feuillet d’album, marked ‘Allegretto semplice’. The composer obviously recognised the popularity of the Nocturne, and later made a transcription for cello and orchestra. The Humoresque, which separates the two examples from Op. 19, is the second of two pieces published as Op. 10. It’s a charming little confection with a distinct Russian feel to it, and nowhere near as ‘easy’ as it might sound, requiring agility in briskly-moving octave chords, especially in the left hand. At this juncture, it would seem appropriate to comment on the quite superb playing by British pianist Nicola Meecham throughout the CD as a whole, and especially here, which makes it a real little gem especially for teachers and younger performers looking for something a little different – or a catchy little encore for any concert-pianist.

The Doumka, Op. 59, was quite a late work, published in 1886, and is subtitled ‘Rustic Russian Scene’. Originating as a Slavic folk-ballad, the Polish dumka, here transliterated in the French version, doumka, is characterized by a predominantly sad or plaintive tone contrasted with a central celebratory section. In Tchaikovsky’s example the use of chords at the opening helps establish a mood of melancholy and solitude, while a pleading, repeated pattern leads into the central ‘con anima’ section with its dancing passages and folk-like energy. But the darkness of the opening is not dispelled, as desolation closes in once more, and the piece ends even sadder than it began. Matthew-Walker says that it is one of the finest of all Tchaikovsky’s shorter solo piano works, a fact which one would not wish to dispute. He does, though, say that, because of its length – just under eight minutes – it is far from being a miniature, whereas, in the greater scheme of things, the Doumka is still as much a miniature as Chopin’s Barcarolle, when compared to his two mature sonatas in B flat minor and B minor respectively, or even Tchaikovsky’s two sonatas on the present CD.

The Grande Sonate in G, Op. 37 was written in 1878, while the Sonata in C sharp minor, that bears the later opus number (Op. 80), and which concludes this CD, appeared earlier, in 1865 as a student-work. Again it is a fully-fledged four movement work, but while the opening ‘Allegro con fuoco’ opens with an attractive-enough theme, structurally the almost ten-minute-long essay still feels rambling, and there isn’t too much fire, or ‘fuoco’ here, either. The ‘Andante’ slow movement isn’t unattractive, and there are some interesting piano textures along the way. Matthew-Walker points out that Tchaikovsky used the ensuing Scherzo – but not the Trio – the following year in the same role in his First Symphony, known as ‘Winter Daydreams’. He makes the point that this later orchestral use could add fuel to the fire for those who already feel that the composer’s music is not really pianistic by nature. The reality, however, is that it suits both environments, in exactly the same way that Grieg’s or Dvořák’s Norwegian or Slavonic Dances respectively are equally effective both in their piano duet and orchestral versions. Indeed, many textures in piano music are described as being orchestral, but this is in no way intended to imply anything derogatory about the piano-writing as such. Here the Scherzo links directly into the Finale, marked ‘Allegro vivo’, and which is certainly lively enough, and pianistically engaging for all of its 6.24 minutes. The sleeve-notes make great play of the fact that, some two minutes from the end, Tchaikovsky turns the home key tonality of C sharp minor into D flat major, citing this as ‘a remarkably original touch – all the more so from a Russian composer of the time’. Now the process of simply ending a piece of music that has been in a minor key, with its corresponding major chord – known as a Picardy Third – has been around in Western music since the Renaissance. Over the intervening centuries most composers have extended this to include whole sections that set out in the minor key, but end, triumphantly, in the major, and this is what Tchaikovsky has done here – no more, no less, since C sharp and D flat are, in reality, the same note. I’ve not seen any statistics to prove that Russian composers made less use of the device than their fellow-Europeans, but it could really be described as remarkably original.

Without a doubt, Meecham with her highly-accomplished performances, the SOMM Recordings label for the great fidelity and care with which they have captured this on disc, and, of course, Matthew-Walker’s advocacy throughout his interesting and compelling sleeve-notes, have all sought to present a united front in favour of the greater acceptance of Tchaikovsky’s solo-piano music, and particularly the larger forms like the two sonatas. But they can only do so much, and Matthew-Walker has himself summed it up so succinctly, when he writes: ‘…it is the quality of the music itself that draws us to it, not its feasibility for the practitioner.’ This new CD does Tchaikovsky absolutely no disservice as far as his works for piano and orchestra, chamber music with piano, and piano miniatures are concerned – in fact, quite the opposite in terms of the latter. However, I personally wouldn’t want to spend any time learning either of the two sonatas heard.
Philip R Buttall



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