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PIOTR TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Suite No. 1 in D minor (1879) 40:51 Suite No. 2 in C major (1883) 38:38 Suite No. 3 in G major (1884) 42:10 Suite No. 4 in G major Mozartiana (1887) 28:24 USSR SO/Evgeny Svetlanov recorded Moscow, 1985 BMG Melodiya 74321 59054 2 Twofer series CD1: [79:48] CD2 [71:02] [150:50]



Another generous compilation from BMG-Melodiya. This also has the virtues of being an intégrale of a little considered and unfashionable corner of Tchaikovsky's orchestral music. In this sense the suites are to be bracketed with Brahms' serenades and Dvorák's and Liszt's symphonic poems.

Only the third of the four suites has enjoyed any real popularity and this has focused on the final 20 minute theme and variations. Mozartiana may be known as a name but the music remains in an obscurity shared also by the first two suites.

The suites date from the decade between the high drama of the fourth symphony and the balletic fantasy of the fifth. The first began to take shape in 1878. The suites follow a Mozartian pattern. Mozart was, of course, a pattern for Tchaikovsky. His dedication to opera was related to his reverence for Mozart's operas. The suites are not pastiches. All the Tchaikovsky hallmarks are there but the emotional temperature of the music leans towards the ballets rather than the symphonies although there are certain parallels with the first three symphonies.

There are six movements in the first suite, five in the second and four in the last two.

The first movement of the first is mournful and shadowy with moments of storm not fully unleashed. After a Brucknerian pause a grand fugue strides forward which, in its string writing, recalls the Serenade for Strings. Svetlanov deftly handles the varying dynamics providing some relief from a fugue which goes on a little too long for its own good. The following divertimento is just that but in the form of a dance. There is a degree more passion in the next (and again rather overlong) Intermezzo with its long-lined buoyant melody. The ensuing sprightly 'birdsong and tinkle' Marche miniature plays just over two minutes and in its toybox perfection could easily have come from Nutcracker. It seems that the composer wanted to omit this 'trashy' (composer's words) piece but in fact it had to be reprised at the premiere. The fifth movement is a playful scherzo, though again slightly too extended for its material. The finale is, as the notewriter points out, a counterpart for Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. It has an elegant charm, humour and a gleam in the eye.

The second suite's 'jeux de sons' is fitfully intense but it is still, as the title suggests, playful. The following valse points again forwards towards Prokofiev's grand symphonic waltzes. Play and vivacious colour mark out the scherzo. The childhood dreams of the fourth movement span almost a quarter of an hour. It is a miniature tone poem with some startling impressionistic effects e.g. at 9:02 and a quasi-symphonic atmosphere. This is one of the most graphic of the movements of all the suites and reason enough by itself to explore this music. In the final wild dance Tchaikovsky reaches towards the Russian nationalist school with which he was not particularly sympathetic. There are hints of Borodin and a crashing Cossack panache.

The last pair of suites are both in four movements and both end with a theme and variations.

The Third (almost three quarters of an hour long) is closer in mood to the symphonies, particularly the fifth. This would be a good place to start if you have enjoyed the symphonies and want to explore Tchaikovsky beyond the obvious. The Elégie is a sombre fantasy of increasing tension released in a long tune of an emotionally plush richness. The shadows and sense of foreboding continue into the melodically splendid valse mélancolique: classic Tchaikovsky. The strings razor sharp surge and flow around the bubbling woodwind. The busily chiff-chaffing Scherzo must surely have been known to Sibelius before he wrote his Kullervo symphony. The long final theme and variations take up almost half of the length of the suite and if you know any part of the suites you will recognise this. The variations include a portentous moment when the dies irae puts in an appearance. There is the obligatory fugue and a stamping nationalistic dance transformed into a tremulous cor anglais serenade and back into an intoxicatingly exciting shouted furiant. The solo violin intones a characterful serenade - a young girl with mercurial spirit. After a call to arms from an increasingly vehement brass the symphonic finale launches into a dervish dance of Mediterranean abandon - drum, tambourine and cymbal punctuated.

There was a rather good LP recording by Boult during the 1970s but this has not been reissued.

The fourth suite takes as its thematic 'food' a number of Mozart works, most of them little known. The whole suite has a delicate strength. In this work Tchaikovsky comes close to affectionate parody of Mozart and there is not the slightest hint of anything other than a love for the master from whom the Russian was separated by a century or more.

The recordings are refined though tending occasionally to an agreeable stridency. They have been done in a reverberant acoustic. The recordings are more recent (1985) than many of BMG's Melodiya series and if, for this misguided reason, you have avoided other issues in this series then you no longer have the excuse.

The competition (which is not numerous) includes Antal Dorati's Polygram set which I heard as LPs many years ago. Either set will provide satisfaction but those preferring the more impassioned Russian approach and instrumental style should lean towards the Svetlanov whose elastic and responsive pacing makes these performances irresistible.

More respectable and useful notes by Sigrid Neef: English, German and French. Full and precise details of premieres are given - usually a good sign as also is an avoidance of arid technicalities. Good artwork and design as is usual with this series. Space-economical single thickness CD case.

Rare and satisfying works which you are unlikely to hear in the concert hall. Recommended.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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