About this Recording
8.557727 - TCHAIKOVSKY, B.: Piano Concerto / Clarinet Concerto / Signs of the Zodiac
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Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996)
Piano Concerto • Clarinet Concerto • Signs of the Zodiac

Widely respected in Russia and praised by figures such as Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich, Boris Tchaikovsky amassed a formidable body of works, including four symphonies, four instrumental concertos, six string quartets, a variety of chamber and orchestral music for various ensembles, piano and vocal music, and an abundance of music for the cinema.

Tchaikovsky received his musical training at the Moscow Conservatory in the years following World War II. He received his diploma in 1949, having studied with the leading instrumental composers of the time, Shostakovich, Nikolay Myaskovsky, and Vissarion Shebalin, bravely refusing to take part in the official condemnation of the much-abused Shostakovich. Tchaikovsky’s works from the 1940s and 1950s already display a pronounced gift for melody; his earliest compositions reflect an individual style.

The cultural thaw of the 1960s opened many doors for Soviet composers in an emerging freer creative environment. While some composers were drawn to avant-garde trends developed in the West, Tchaikovsky, quite independently, began to explore a bolder musical language of his own. Yet the lyricism that lies at the base of his musical thinking was undergoing profound metamorphosis. A fresh approach to composition was evolving whereby thematic development takes place as a kind of “mosaic” of accentuated, declamatory utterances. The striking rigidity of these utterances, a Tchaikovsky hallmark, and their strong rhythmic characteristics are related to similar aspects found in Russian folk-music. They somehow impart to his music a distinctly Russian sound while completely avoiding any traces of an overt folk influence. A corresponding increase in the level of dissonance and the use of bolder orchestral colours are also to be noted. What in fact Tchaikovsky had created was a highly personal, thoroughly up-to-date musical language capable, as will be apparent, of an astonishingly wide range of expression. Tchaikovsky’s new style opened up a world of formal exploration and expressivity, mostly in the realm of abstract instrumental music. Technical challenges of one sort or another fascinated him and led to an ever-fresh source of inspiration. The works on the present disc offer a varied cross-section of his work.

In the Piano Concerto rhythm is used as the springboard from which all musical ideas and their manner of development derive. In the outer movements, rhythm also forms the principal structuring device. Each of the concerto’s ideas or ‘rhythmotifs’ derives its identity from one or more, often short, strongly accented patterns. These ideas are treated lyrically and not without a significant bravura element that displays Tchaikovsky’s mastery of the instrument. The first movement is a lively toccata that is dominated by a single, monolithic rhythmic idea: a tenacious ostinato of throbbing eighth notes (quavers), grouped eight to a bar, that are hammered out incessantly. In contrast, the second movement is both tender and sublime. The husky tones of the solo double bass introduce a gently swaying idea that provides a foil for the main theme stated on the piano. The movement is cast in ABAB form where the B sections feature a theme based on an inverted version of the mordent figure found in the A sections. The music returns to the soft strains of the initial ‘A’ material, but now the piano line is ever so sweetly adorned by the violins, which sing in the uppermost registers the theme originally given to the solo double bass. A momentary pause marks the return of the inverted theme (the final B section) where the piano, in spare single-notes, continues to render the exquisitely sensitive lyricism as it climbs to higher and higher registers, eventually vanishing magically off the upper end of the keyboard. In the third movement Tchaikovsky delivers a compact sonata form in a framework of uniformly paced accents. The first theme is presented at the outset in a lively galumphing rhythm on the piano. The second theme, pensively undulating in a stepwise fashion, is heard on piano and strings and is adorned by rapid oscillations of a perfect fourth, punctuated by a two-note tattoo on the bass drum. At the climax all the ideas – galumphing theme, undulating theme, tattoo, perfect fourth – rally together in a texturally transparent, splendid moment of synthesis. The fourth movement, an exuberant rondo, is built from three themes of vividly contrasting rhythms: a skipping theme heard at the outset on French horn, then piano; a syncopated theme introduced and most often heard on French horn; and chasing immediately after it and at times overlapping it, another piano-dominated theme that pays playful homage to Baroque polyphony. The skipping theme and the ‘Baroque’ theme each receive extended pianistic treatment in their subsequent reappearances in the movement. The first theme is at times reduced to pure skeletal rhythm – in one passage, to a set of lively exchanges between snare drum and bass drum. The fifth and final movement is based on a short idea with a limping gait that is taken through its paces with a wealth of lyrical possibilities. Like the opening movement, its “monorhythmic” construction offers yet another example of Tchaikovsky’s remarkable ability to take the simplest rhythmic formula and from it build a dramatic arc of rich and ingratiating emotion.

Cast in three movements, the modest proportions of Tchaikovsky’s Clarinet Concerto not only cover colourful ground but offer plenty of virtuosic opportunity for the soloist. Its melodic style, light scoring (for solo clarinet, strings, three trumpets and timpani) and the symmetries imposed by its sectional repeats establish its affinities with eighteenth-century Baroque and Classical models. From the opening bars of the Moderato the clarinet sings straight from the heart. Its graceful melody floats above a relaxed pattern of quarter notes (crotchets) in the strings in steadily measured triple time. In the short second movement, Vivace, melodic boundaries are again shunned as the clarinet alternates with the strings in weaving a rousing wall-to-wall ribbon of sixteenth notes (semiquavers) with syncopated accompaniment. This leads to the final Allegro whose main theme, introduced by the clarinet, is built out of leaping intervals (rising and falling thirds, descending sixths and sevenths) that contrast with the scalewise material that surrounds it. The improvisatory interplay of these ideas gives this final rondo a rather jazzy character.

Perhaps the most important vocal work by Tchaikovsky is the cantata Signs of the Zodiac. Scored for solo soprano, strings and harpsichord, it is a deeply expressive setting that finds Tchaikovsky at the height of his lyrical powers. The work takes one verse each from four poets who collectively span two centuries of Russian literature. The poems embrace the common themes of human mortality, eternity, and regeneration and represent a wide variety of literary styles and frames of reference. They take us from the lyric, philosophical verses of Fyodor Tyutchev (1803 - 1873), to those of the Symbolist Alexander Blok (1880-1921) to the more modern styles of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) and most recently, Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958). The order of the verses in the cantata preserves this historical time line. In doing so, a link of human experience through the ages is established, as is a sense of timeless continuity of past, present and future, rather like the constellations of stars in the zodiac itself.

The instrumental Prelude that opens the work draws upon all the musical material that will appear in the following songs. The ideas flow into each other, fantasia-like, in the same order as they will appear in the four settings, an arrangement that sustains the cantata’s overall organization of themes and emotional states. When the ideas do reappear in the songs it also reinforces the cyclic timelessness of the cantata’s subject matter. The Prelude displays string writing of spare texture and extraordinary finesse. Ruminative yet full of expressive energy, its moment-by-moment reactivity and rhythmic resilience anticipate the elaborate word-painting that will follow in the songs. The beautifully inspired lyricism in the vocal line that follows, the scrupulously detailed accompaniment, and not least the sheer economy of means, are surely the traits of a masterpiece.

The first setting features Tyutchev’s poem Silence, which describes with heart-rending imagery the inescapable silence that dwells within the human soul. The vocal line is dark and strongly expressive, rising and falling stepwise toward potent cadences at the end of the poem’s three stanzas. The word ‘molchi’ (silence) returns as the final word of each stanza, and with it, the soprano’s haunting cadence invariably falls on the pitch G#, giving the sense each time of returning to an enduring and eternal truth. The verses of the next song, Far Out, by Blok, contemplate the “far out, up there” sounds of the living as one would imagine hearing them from beneath the coffin-lid, which is ironically described as “our safeguard against the tortures of loving and living”. The melody rocks back and forth between several intervals with richly detailed majorminor inflections in the accompaniment, embracing the bittersweet ambiguities of Blok’s verse. Tsvetaeva’s Cross of Four Roads forms the expressive nucleus of the cantata as the poet, with deep pathos, ponders her own demise. The vocal line begins delicately and builds to an intense passage of penetrating beauty. Note the extraordinary finesse on the part of the strings whose broken phrases alternate between pizzicato and arco in the first two verses; and which then throb back and forth between groups of three and five in the passionate nextto- last verse that exhorts “You wild grass from pate to toe/ Cover me.” The final poem, Signs of the Zodiac, presents a vision of time’s endless cycle and, within it, life’s brief passing. Tchaikovsky captures the fairytalelike quality of these classic Zabolotsky lines with a main theme of disarming simplicity based on the notes of the G major triad. But there is a dark side to these verses that Tchaikovsky also acknowledges, however obliquely. The music at one point takes a brief detour into G minor, and in the last two verses, it slows down to a sobering, sinister, pace, casting an enigmatic spell as the cantata concludes with a foreboding invitation to all: Come, let you sleep, too!

Louis Blois


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