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Tchiakovsky, a highly subjective listener's guide

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I have been listening to Tchiakovsky a lot recently. What follows is a discussion of what I have heard. It is limited by what happens to reside in my CD collection, by no means a representative selection of his works. I won’t try to approach the symphonies or, for obvious reasons, the three ballets.

Tchiakovsky was a melodist of inexhaustible gifts, which is not to damn with faint praise, although many academic critics consider a “mere melodist” to be automatically guilty of banality.

The operas—Tchiakovsky is arguably the preeminent Russian composer for the lyric stage. Of his ten operas, nine survive intact and one in two different versions. I am familiar with three of them: “Eugene Onegin”, “The Queen of Spades” and “Iolanta”.

“Onegin” is close to perfect melding of word and music and perhaps the only way to musically dramatize Pushkin’s novel. It should be on just about any shortlist of great lyric operas. While it is not necessary to summarize the action for readers of balletalert, critics of the stature of Vladimir Nabokov have denigrated it for not being slavishly faithful to the source. What he and others who attack the opera fail to see is that the music can expose the conflict between the inner and outer worlds of the characters and also quickly and effectively sketch their backgrounds within a few bars.

It opens with a real tour de force of vocal and orchestral counterpoint, the duet between Tatyanna and Olga which becomes a quartet as Larina and Filipevna join them. It has all the beauty, complexity and expressive power of the great concerted pieces in “Fidelio” or any of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas. In about five minutes it sets the scene in the countryside, shows the relationship between the characters and also the classes to which they belong and introduces us to each of their strengths and weaknesses. The letter scene, Tatyanna’s monologue, is breathtaking and heartbreaking—and the text is straight from Pushkin. Lenski’s aria is deservedly one of the staples of the tenor repertory, as Prince Gremin’s is of the bass voice.

Four recordings, two of them on super-cheap pirate labels.

On Gala, from 1962, sung in German which is not a really a drawback for me. A transparent orchestral touch from the pit, which contains the Bavarian State Opera, led by Joseph Keilberth. Luxury casting, including Brigitte Fassbaender as Olga, with Fritz Wunderlich and Hermann Prey in the main male roles. The chorus is especially noteworthy and precise. They have razor sharp attacks and all of the vocal lines are both distinct and blended.

Another unofficially recorded performance is from the Bolshoi, probably from the late 1950s, on Opera D’Oro. I am not familiar with the conductor, Boris Khaikin, but the cast is one for the ages, with Galina Vishnevskaya, the Russian diva of divas, as Tatyanna and including Sergei Lemeshev and Ivan Petrov. Even with Galina under pitch occasionally this is a white-hot performance with some wonderful singers rarely heard in the West.

The third is from Covent Garden and led by Georg Solti. It is very much the conductors’ performance and if you are a fan of Solti (which I sometimes am) and don’t mind Tchiakovsky played with more than a touch of Wagnerian and Mahlerian bombast and pathos, you will like it. Available on London, recorded in 1974.

Last is a recent one—a DDD release for those who value the sharpest sound reproduction. Once again Olga Borodina is Olga, with Nuccia Focile as Tatyanna and the reigning Slavic bari-hunk, Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role.

“Iolanta” is lyrical and impressionistic in its use of orchestral colors, while the vocal writing is more craftsmanlike than inspired. The scene and duet between Iolanta and Vaudemont contains some exquisite music and several of the arias became recital-stage standards. The plot is believable only by opera standards and, oddly enough, has a very upbeat ending.

This work was composed simultaneously with “The Nutcracker”. They were premiered on the same bill, back in the days when you really got your money’s worth for a concert ticket—an entire opera and an entire ballet in the same evening! There is almost no action as such in the libretto—the heroine is blind—but the music expresses the theme, which is the healing power of unconditional love, beautifully.

There is an Erato recording done in 1986 with Vishnevskaya in the title role, conducted by her husband, Rostropovitch. Nicolai Gedda sings Vaudemont, almost enough in itself to recommend this recording. It is an odd amalgam of strengths and weaknesses. Vishnevskaya overpowers the gentle lyricism of the role—her voice is much on the dramatic/spinto side of the equation—and Gedda matches her in power and volume. A very Italianate sounding pairing, while Rostropovitch brings out the more gently nuanced sound given to the orchestra. It is as if Tosca and Cavaradosi wandered into a production of “Pelleas and Melisande. Odd, but it works.

There is a recording that completely lacks star power, with unknown soloists and a provincial orchestra that has a more unified approach. It is on CPO and features the Warsaw Philharmonic led by Hans Rotman, with soloist who I have yet to hear of.. While the listener is aware of the limitations of the cast—some of Tchiakovsky’s writing is simply beyond the soloists to sing beautifully—the work is presented as a whole, a “thing in itself” which is at least as valid as the Erato.

“The Queen of Spades” seems to be the Tchiakovsky opera best known in the UK, while “Eugene Onegin” holds that place in the USA. Philips has released a video and CD of a Bolshoi performance with Gergiev in the pit, Maria Gulegina as the ill-fated Lisa, Olga Borodina as Pauline and Gegam Gregorian as the tortured Herman. The score highlights the eerie correspondence that the libretto draws between the surface action and the occult that underlies it. Based on a novella from Pushkin, it is a stark portrayal of obsession and how people can be crushed by malign passion.

Yelestky’s aria, in which he pledges eternal love for Lisa while at he same time admitting his weaknesses, has become a standard for the baritone repertory. It has a sublime melody and, like so much of Tchiakovsky’s vocal writing, lies perfectly on the voice.

The video is really something—there is a hallucinatory quality to the music and libretto that is brought out in the lighting. It must have been extremely powerful in the theater. Ghostly apparitions, characters fading in and out of shadows, a thunderstorm suddenly appearing on a calm spring day—I imagine this is the kind of production that lighting directors love.

Piano Concerto no. 1

If you don’t like Tchiakovsky, you will hate this work—it is an archetype of the Romantic piano concerto with its flamboyance. It is a significant test of the soloist’s technique, charisma, powers of concentration and sheer endurance. As “unclassical” as a concerto can be, and unforgettable, especially in the opening with the horn anticipating the theme, followed by the crashing piano chords that lead to the theme centered in the violins. But....oops that is NOT the theme, just a showy introduction that is discarded. Either wonderfully wasteful or wastefully wonderful but it is as much of a signature opening as the first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Not having a score it is impossible for me to tell, but the very opening of the first movement might be echoed toward the end of the third—just after the impossibly long and complex cadenza for the soloist. Or maybe not. I love this work.

There may be as many recordings of this standard as there are notes in the score. If you like your Tchiakovsky wild and woolly with all the stops pulled out, I suggest a Philips recording with Martha Argerich as soloist and Kirill Kindrashin leading the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in 1980. It can be doubly recommended since it includes a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with Argerich accompanied by Ricardo Chially and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. She is a tremendously talented and charismatic artist who was at the height of her powers twenty years ago. There is another recording of her as soloist on this concerto, also on Philips. Claudio Abado and the Berlin Phil accompany her. In keeping with the season it is coupled with the Nutcracker Suite arranged for two pianos. She only plays one of them.

Violin Concerto in D Major

This one is Romantic (and romantic) even by the standards of the late nineteenth century. There was an uproar against it at its premiere in 1881—this was back in the days music was an important part of people’s lives. Several virtuoso violinists refused to learn it. Leopold Auer decided it impossible to play. Listening to the final movement one can more than sympathize with this viewpoint. The violinist needs technique to burn, a ravishing tone and the ability to change tempos at seemingly capricious points.

Again there are lots of recordings—Victoria Mullova, an artist of great gifts is accompanied by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a Philips recording which is one to have. It is coupled with the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

Enough for now. I have also been listening anew to the chamber music, some of the incidental music and the songs and will try to put something together on those during the holidays.

Ed Waffle


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So much attention for only a "second-rate composer", Ed? Hmm, very interesting wink.gif

May I ask why you are not considering Tchaikovsky's symphonies (and does that affect the other symphonic works, like the ouvertures, the symphonic poems, as well?)

Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

(Try to find that old recording once of "Onegin" from the Bolshoi in 1948 with one of Russia's greatest tenors Ivan Kozlovsky as Lensky; conductor Alexander Orlov. It is available on CD).

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Thanks for all those references, Ed.

I like Tchaikovski's music, but am quite ignorant about music in general,

and have no idea if the recordings I have are considered as good or not

(most of them were bought when I was an undergraduate student and one of

main criteria was "it's cheap"). However, here are a few ones I like:

-Violin Concerto: Nathan Milstein, Wiener Philarmoniker conducted by

Claudio Abbado (DG, coupled with Mendelssohn's violin concerto).

-Piano Concerto n.1: Sviatoslav Richter, Vienna Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Herbert Von Karajan (DG, coupled with Rachmaninoff's Five


Also some time ago several interesting CDs by the Russian label Melodia

were available in France, but I don't remember the exact references. For

example, there was one (quite interesting for balletomanes) with "Suite n.3"

and "Suite n.4 Mozartiana".

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Tchaikovsky will never be one of my favorite composers due to childhood overexposure (my mother taught ballet), but I can't resist mentioning a couple of my favorite recordings. Both, I regret to say, are of the Nutcracker, but they are eccentric enough to be tolerable even at this time of the year.

Shirim's "Klezmer Nutcracker" (reviewed at http://www.klezmershack.com/bands/shirim/n...nutcracker.html ), which includes "Kozatsky 'till You Dropsky," "Dance of the Latkes Queens," "March of the Macabees," "Araber Tants," "Tants Chinese," "Dance of the Dreydls" and "Waltz of the Rugalah," as well as de/reconstructions of Mahler, Brahms, Satie and Enesco.

Spike Jones, "Nutcracker Suite," on "Spike Jones is Murdering the Classics." No comment necessary.


Don McClane

500 Years Behind the Times: The Adventures of a Renaissance Man in 20th-Century Kansas

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I adore Onegin - one the best opera ever writtin and deserves to be as popular as La Traviata (the tart with the heart opera)! I particularly like James Levine's powerful recording.

Sleeping Beauty (pletnev) and Theme and Variations for Suite no 3 are my other favorites.

But I think his symphonies are over the top and almost hysterical in their utterance. The only bit I admire in his 4-6 symphones is the ballet march from no 6.

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Eugene, happy new year--

Listen to the first three symphonies--they aren't hysterical at all. C'mon, you LOVE "Manon" and you are complaining about hysterical utterances?????

Actually, that is the beauty of this board--we are all so diverse that it is considerably more interesting!

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