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8.550504 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Music (Prunyi)
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 -1893) Piano Music

The music of Tchaikovsky, in spite of the reservations of contemporaries at home and abroad, must seem to us both essentially Russian and essentially and firmly in the West European tradition. In Vienna the critic Eduard Hanslick was able to complain of the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the finale of the Violin Concerto, but in Russia Tchaikovsky never went far enough to please the self-appointed leader of musical nationalists, Balakirev. While by no means a miniaturist, he nevertheless excelled in his mastery of the smaller forms necessary in ballet, also exhibited to some extent in his piano pieces, a necessary element in any composer's output, for which there was a readier market than for larger scale works. The nineteenth century was, after all, the age of the domestic pianist.

The son of a chief inspector of mines in Government service in Votkinsk, Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and educated at first at home by a beloved governess and later at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, in preparation for a career in the Ministry of Justice. This he was to abandon in 1863, when he joined the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatory, founded by Anton Rubinstein, the first of its kind in Russia. Three years later he joined the staff of the new Conservatory in Moscow, directed by Nikolay Rubinstein, Anton Rubinstein's brother.

Tchaikovsky, abnormally sensitive and diffident, and tormented by his own homosexuality that seemed to isolate him from the society of the time, had already made a considerable impression as a composer, when an unwise, face-saving marriage in 1877 brought complete nervous collapse and immediate separation from his new wife. In 1878 he was able to resign from the Conservatory, thanks to the assistance of a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, whom he was never to meet but who offered him both financial and moral support for some thirteen years.

In 1893, shortly after the St. Petersburg performance of his Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky died, it is thought by his own hand, compelled to this step by a court of honour of his fellows from the School of Jurisprudence, after threats of exposure and scandal resulting from a liaison with a young nobleman. His death was widely mourned both in Russia and abroad, where his music had won considerable favour.

In 1867 Tchaikovsky planned to spend a holiday in Finland with his brother Anatoly. When his plan miscarried and the brothers found themselves with too little money to see them through the summer, they returned to St. Petersburg and finding none of the family there, took the steamer, as deck passengers, to join Anatoly's twin brother Modest with their married sister Sasha Davidova at Haapsalu on the coast of Estonia. Cheap lodgings were found and the weeks passed more pleasantly than had seemed possible, in spite of the lack of money. Matters were complicated by the presence of Vera Davidova, who, it was thought, had set her heart on Tchaikovsky. He dedicated to her his three piano pieces, Souvenir de Hapsal, the second of which, a Scherzo, was a reworking of an earlier composition. A year later his feelings had been aroused by the actress and singer Désirée Artôt, a pupil of Pauline Viardot, and there was talk of marriage. The Romance in F minor, Opus 5, was written for her.

Tchaikovsky wrote the three piano pieces that form Opus 9 in 1870 and they were published by Jurgenson, who had been encouraged by Nikolay Rubinstein to establish a music publishing business in Moscow. Rubinstein supported his young colleague by playing the Rêverie and the Mazurka from Opus 9 at a concert of his music that Tchaikovsky organised in Moscow in March 1871 under the auspices of the Russian Music Society, an event attended even by Turgenev.

The Nocturne and Humoresque of Opus 10 were written early in 1872 in Nice, where Tchaikovsky spent a month with his intimate friend and former pupil Vladimir Shilovsky, a visit that he tried to keep secret, to avoid gossip. The second of the pieces makes use in its central section of a popular song he heard during his stay. Both were dedicated to Shilovsky.

The following year brought a set of six piano pieces, as well as the first performance of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony and the completion of his symphonic fantasy on Shakespeare's play The Tempest. The Variations that end Opus 19 were played by Hans von Bülow in a concert during his visit to Russia in 1874. The set opens with a Rêverie du soir, perhaps recalling the peace and serenity of the summer weeks spent at Shilovsky's estate at Usovo in the absence of its owner. The penultimate Capriccioso displays a different mood.

Piano pieces of moderate difficulty, so advertised, met an obvious commercial need, as did the 24 easy pieces of Opus 39 of 1878. Opus 40, written in the spring of 1878, consists of twelve pieces. Tchaikovsky, in an attempt to escape from the distressing results of his attempted marriage, had left Russia in October 1877 for an extended stay abroad, at first at Clarens in Switzerland and later travelling in Italy. In Florence in February, where he was infatuated by the sound and sight of a boy street-singer, some of whose songs he transcribed, he resolved to write one piano piece a day, a resolution he failed to keep. Later in the year he returned to Russia, spending some time at Madame von Meck's Brailov estate before moving to Kamenka to the Davidov's, where he completed the proof-reading of the Twelve Pieces in November of a year that had brought the completion of the opera Eugene Onegin and of the Fourth Symphony and his resignation from the Moscow Conservatory. The fifth of the pieces is a Polish Mazurka and the tenth a Russian Dance.

At Kamenka in the summer of 1882 Tchaikovsky set to work on the uncongenial task of writing a set of six piano pieces commissioned by the Jurgenson brothers, at a time when he was finding some difficulty in the composition of the opera Mazeppa. The second of these pieces is a Polka and the fifth a Romance, both attractive enough in their way, in spite of the composer's own views of his task in writing them.

In 1885 Tchaikovsky rented a house at Maidonovo, near Klin, in the Moscow district, resolving to make this his temporary home for a year or so. He wrote his Dumka, a Russian rustic scene, there, shortly before attending a memorial concert for Nikolay Rubinstein, who had died in 1881 at the age of 46. The only substantial set of piano pieces he wrote after this was the set of eighteen, composed in the spring of 1893, when he was busy with sketches of the Sixth Symphony, first performed in St. Petersburg ten days before his death. The third piece has the evocative title Tendres reproches, the seventh is a Polacca de concert, the eighth a Dialogue and the twelfth L'espiègle, the last dedicated to Jurgenson and the others to his old piano teacher in St. Petersburg, Anton Herke, to Liszt's pupil Pabst, now on the staff of Moscow Conservatory and to his friend, the critic and writer Laroche respectively.

Ilona Prunyi
Ilona Prunyi was born in Debrecen in 1941 and studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, distinguishing herself in the Liszt-Bartók Competition while still a student. Her career as a concert performer was interrupted by a period of ill health, and for personal reasons she spent ten years as a teacher at the Academy before making her début in 1974. Since then she has appeared frequently in solo and chamber music recitals and as a soloist with the principal Hungarian orchestras.


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