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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)
Children’s Album Op 39 (orch. Jacopo Rivani, 1878) [31:10]
Serenade for Strings in C major Op 48 (1880) [32:04]
Orchestra Arcangelo Corelli/Jacopo Rivani
Rec. July 2020, Fusignano, Italy
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00390 [63:47]

Planning an album is always a tricky thing. Do you appeal to the mainstream of collectors or the specialist? The danger, as here, of trying to target both camps is that the result falls between the two stools with about half a disc of music appealing to either group. So on this hour long disc there is a 31 minute world premiere and 32 minutes of very standard Tchaikovskian fare given a solid but unremarkable outing.

But the good news first – the conductor of the Orchestra Arcangelo Corelli, Jacopo Rivani, has produced a very effective and charming orchestration of the brief pieces that constitute Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album Op 39. Brevity and modesty of scale are choices both of the composer and the orchestrator. Of the twenty-four individual pieces only two break the two minute barrier and eight more run to less than a minute. Rivani sensibly keeps his orchestral palette small – a chamber string section complimented by a woodwind quintet with additional harp and one trumpet. The liner note rightly alludes to Robert Schumann as the inspiration and especially that composer’s Album für die Jugend. Tchaikovsky’s genius in these charming miniatures is to create a scene with the minimum of musical strokes in the shortest amount of time. Rivani, quite literally, does not have the time or musical scope to pastiche the symphonic Tchaikovsky, instead preferring a very judicious and apt application of instrumental colour. That said, the ostinato pizzicato of No 3 Hobbyhorses does indeed recall the same effect in his Symphony No 4. The presence of the harp – No 4 Mummy or No 19 A Nursery Tale (this latter movement one of Rivani’s most delightful creations) recalls Tchaikovsky’s brilliant use of that instrument in his ballets. Mentioning ballet points to the number of ‘character’ dance movements in the set – there are waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, German, Russian, French and Italian songs. In a direct ‘lift’ from Swan Lake, that score’s Danse Neopolitaine is repurposed here in a very abridged form as No 18 Neopolitan Song.

For all the undoubted charm of these overtly dance movements, the liner writer Chiana Bertoglio quite rightly points to the lyrical reflective movements as containing the music of most enduring impact and considerable beauty. The collection is bookended by two ‘religious’ evocations; Morning Prayer and At Church. Again Rivani’s use of the solo wind here to create a village organ in the former and a chorale-like chant in the latter is very beautiful. Likewise, the longest movement, No 21 Sweet Dream, is a real gem with solo horn and oboe playing of disarming sensitivity. The ‘problem’ is inherent in the original purpose of the music – written for children to learn, enjoy and play in small bite-size pieces at home. They were never intended for a public platform. On disc, as a series of miniatures they are genuinely delightful. But even here, twenty four very brief chips from a master’s block are such a mix of moods briefly delineated, that it makes for a rather fragmented half hour’s listening.

I have nothing but praise for Rivani’s orchestration and indeed the apt and alert playing of the orchestra. The engineering places the orchestra rather too close for my personal comfort – keys-clatter from the woodwind are clearly audible in the quieter movements as are intakes of breath from conductor and players. The closeness of the recording also rather diminishes the dynamic range with the slightly dry acoustic making it hard for the strings to project a genuinely floating or integrated sound. Tchaikovsky was deliberately limited in the technical range he could write for so there are no virtuoso/bravura movements to balance the lyrical or consciously naive ones. So overall, a very enjoyable and worthwhile world premiere recording but not a work of such substance that I would imagine sitting down to hear the complete set often in one go.

Of course the opposite is true of the coupling – Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings Op 48 is one of the greatest, most familiar works in the string orchestra repertoire. The liner lists all the players in the orchestra which gives a string strength of 6/5/4/3/2 – so a quite small chamber orchestra. Of course the Serenade has been recorded many times to good effect by smaller ensembles but I have an abiding preference for a large symphonic string section at least double the size of the one here. That said, it sounds as if the engineers have placed the strings slightly further away from the microphones compared to the other work and certainly for a small group they make a full and vibrant sound. But no matter how hard they work the simple absence of numbers of players limits the weight and sonority they can generate. For all the liner’s references to Tchaikovsky’s admiration for Mozart and the older composer’s serenades, this work is Romantic with a capital “R”. The other problem with the relative closeness of the sound and the size of the ensemble is that minor flaws in execution are rather under the aural microscope. This is still good playing make no mistake, but when hundreds of other versions exist in the catalogue without the slightest blemish, why choose to listen to a version which has some. Especially since Rivani as conductor here does not have any particular insights into the score. This is a safe, centrist view that lacks the ardour or fantasy or passion of the best. Just listen to Svetlanov with his USSR symphony orchestra in the first movement Pezzo in forma di Sonatina wringing every ounce of Slavic soul from the great opening pages or Muti in Philadelphia mining the depths of tone that remarkable orchestra have to hand. For a fleeter, lighter approach Ashkenazy in St. Petersburg emphasises the virtuosity of his string section with a scintillating Finale – tema Russo against which these Italian players sound laboured in tempo and stretched in technique. Those are literally the first three alternatives I had to hand. In concert, this current performance would have been perfectly enjoyable – with the luxury of choice it is not in contention.

So something of a mixed bag, a really enjoyable Children’s Album coupled with a rather routine Serenade. Personally I would have enjoyed more a coupling of the Gauk orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s other domestic piano cycle The Seasons - just about squeezable onto a single disc I reckon – which exists already on CD but in only a handful of versions. Or perhaps Rivani could have produced another insightful orchestration of his own? A disc for pre-purchase sampling or selective downloading.

Nick Barnard

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