About this Recording
8.570195 - TCHAIKOVSKY, B.: Symphony No. 1 / The Murmuring Forest Suite / After the Ball Suite
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Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996)
Symphony No. 1 • Suite: The Murmuring Forest • Suite: After the Ball

 

In a career that spanned the last half of the twentieth Century, the composer Boris Tchaikovsky towered high among his Soviet contemporaries. His work received unalloyed praise from the most prominent musical figures, Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Kondrashin, Barshai, and Fedoseyev, and was represented on more than twenty Melodiya LPs, few of which circulated outside the Soviet Union. In the West, however, where musical tastes favoured the avant garde, his music was largely overlooked. That climate of opinion has been rapidly changing. As more of his work is recorded on CD, Boris Tchaikovsky is becoming widely recognised as one of the most important Russian composers of our time.

As both standard-bearer and innovator, Tchaikovsky arguably did more to enrich the tradition of Russian instrumental music than anyone else of his generation. He was trained at the Moscow Conservatory during the 1940s under Vissarion Shebalin, Shostakovich, and Nikolay Myaskovsky. His works from the 1950s, such as the celebrated Sinfonietta for Strings (1953), show that he was a traditionalist with forward-looking sensibilities. An extensive revamping of his style in the 1960s, coincident with the freer creative environment then emerging in the Soviet Union, led his music in fresh directions. Unlike the alienating rhetoric and the host of "isms" adopted by many of his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky's mature style maintained strong connections with its Russian roots. With its brittle lyricism, pronounced rhythmic features, and an expanded harmonic palette that never completely abandons tonality, the new style allowed him to take on a broad and at times exotic array of formal challenges. The result was a highly innovative, richly expressive body of work that appealed to a wide concert-going public.

Tchaikovsky's principal works include four symphonies, four concertos, various other works for orchestra, a chamber symphony, six string quartets, and a quantity of other chamber music. If the list seems short, the works themselves boast an engaging variety of formal explorations. His most daring compositions include a bravura Cello Concerto (1964) that challenges the notion of thematic identity, a single-movement Violin Concerto (1969) that shuns the time-honoured musical practice of repetition, and a five-movement Piano Concerto (1971) all of whose elements derive from primitive rhythmic patterns. His orchestral compositions, such as his Theme and Eight Variations (1973) and the tone-poems Wind of Siberia and Juvenile (both of 1984), reveal a wealth of lyrical invention. His symphonies embrace an ever-expanding quest for innovation within traditional forms. To briefly summarise, in the First Symphony (1947) matters of thematic organization receive individual treatment; the Second Symphony (1967) incorporates musical quotations from the classics as points of structural departure; the Third Symphony, "Sebastopol", (1980) is conceived as a single monumental movement; and his Symphony with Harp (1993) explores a unique set of timbral possibilities.

The present disc draws upon Tchaikovsky's earliest period with three works written between 1947 and 1953, around the time of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1949. The earliest of these is the First Symphony, whose originality so impressed Shostakovich that he brought the work to the attention of the noted conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, who readily agreed to programme it, but what should have been an auspicious première by a promising young composer never materialised. Stalin's notorious campaign against Soviet composers in 1948 brought virtually all musical creativity to a halt. Specifically targeted was Shostakovich, whose students, including Tchaikovsky, were branded as "contaminated". The first performance of the Symphony, as happened with a number of contemporaneous works by Shostakovich, was tabled. Tchaikovsky's symphony was given its première to much acclaim on 7 February 1962 with Kirill Kondrashin leading the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. This, the first recording of the Symphony, appears nearly sixty years after its composition.

It is not hard to see why Tchaikovsky's First Symphony made such a strong impression on Shostakovich. As ambitious in emotional scope as it is in its overall design, the work already finds the composer thinking globally in terms of musical architecture. While the influence of Shostakovich is evident in its brilliant orchestration, Tchaikovsky's symphony, like Shostakovich's own first attempt at the form, strongly proclaims its own stylistic ground.

The depth and richness of Tchaikovsky's musical thinking are evident in the opening Moderato. The movement is cast in sonata form and generously supplies no less than half a dozen themes in its exposition. A majestic theme with major-minor colorations opens the work, followed by a second phrase, rising and falling scalewise, introducing a "motto", that will establish itself, in various guises, as a signal presence throughout this work, providing a link within and across each of its four movements. A more extended second thematic group starts with a repeated three-note figure that emerges forcefully in the woodwinds. This idea is expanded and leads to a number of other themes: another three-note figure descending stepwise with timpani punctuation; thematic material in dotted rhythm that echoes the first two notes — short-long — of the opening theme of the first group; and later a short five-note tattoo, a time-compressed version of the motto theme. The clarity and individual character of each of these ideas belies the subtle ties that unite them and the movement into an organic whole. A remarkable synthesis follows in the development section where this plethora of themes is knit together with gripping logic and cumulative drama. The recapitulation begins with a climactic restatement of the opening theme and the movement ends quietly. The second movement, Allegro marcato, comprises a fantastic Russian Scherzo. Here three rhythmically charged themes gleefully parley with each other on either side of a broadly lyrical central section scored for strings. Notice in the outer sections the appearances of the motto theme in the respective solos for oboe, clarinet, and piccolo. In the Largo, cast in ABAB form, the motto appears everywhere, as the initial flourish (in inverted form) and as the ever-present countermelody to the themes in both A and B sections. When the A section returns, a climactic statement of the first theme on solo French horn leads to a short reprise of the tender second theme before the movement closes quietly. Tchaikovsky's inexhaustible powers of invention are again attested to in the theme and set of variations of the final Allegretto. The theme, introduced by the solo clarinet, consists of four distinct phrases that offer plenty of lyrical groundwork: first a held note that skips up an octave; then two utterances of the motto; a descending sequence of triplets; and finally a series of three note figures that close the phrase. The composer's high-spirited variations take the idea through its colourful paces while offering genuine symphonic development. The treatment leads to a number of passages of heightened drama – including a fugal variation and a passage with Spanish-style trumpet solos – before the quiet conclusion of the final variation, again led off by the solo clarinet.

Tchaikovsky wrote incidental music for nearly three dozen films and more than two dozen plays, most of the latter being produced for radio broadcast. Once asked about his works in these genres, he recalled with particular fondness the music he wrote to Andersen's Fairy Tales, and to the radio dramas The Murmuring Forest (1953) and After the Ball (1952). It therefore must have been a great disappointment to Tchaikovsky when his score to The Murmuring Forest went missing. Thanks to the efforts of the Boris Tchaikovsky Society, however, the score was at last found in 2003 in the archives of the Moscow Radio Library. Posthumously fulfilling the composer's intentions, the concert suite heard on this disc was arranged.

The Murmuring Forest is a dramatization of a novel of the same name by Vladimir Korolenko (1853-1921), whose sympathies for the downtrodden infuse all his writing. Deep in the woods a grandfather tells the story of his surrogate father, Roman, a forest-dweller from birth, who lived at the mercy of a cruel despotic squire. After receiving brutal floggings from the squire, Roman unwillingly concedes to marrying Oxana, a girl who has captured the heart of the noble Cossack Opanas, the squire's steward. Roman and Oxana settle in and make a life for themselves. After the passage of time the squire, accompanied by his loyal huntsman and the lovelorn Opanas, returns to the Roman household. The squire's visit, which he announces with his own trumpet fanfare, is not an innocent one. He lustfully plans to seclude himself and Oxana by getting Roman dead drunk and dispatching him and Opanas to the forest. After a bout of heavy drinking Opanas sings a strangely beautiful song whose lyrics harbour ominous forebodings for the squire. But Opanas, on the sly, warns Roman about the squire's insidious plot. The grandfather then recounts the mutinous actions of Roman and Opanas, whereby they drag the squire and his loyal huntsman into the storm-laden forest and shoot them both dead. Korolenko's novel begins with the words "…A perpetual murmur filled these woods — steady, continuous, like the echo of distant chiming, serene and faint, like the crooning of a song, like a vague remembrance of the past…" Tchaikovsky's suite opens with a sumptuous evocation of wind and rustling leaves in low strings as the clarinet introduces a darkly stirring theme that gradually rises in intensity. The trumpet fanfare and the chordal strumming of Cossack Opanas's strange song are portrayed in the third part, Allegro. In the Molto vivace that follows, the opening theme returns with more agitated accompaniment, as thunderous strokes on the bass drum suggest the lightning bolts that punctuate the shots of the double execution. A summary of the dramatic events is heard in the final Andante with a reprise of the opening clarinet theme over coruscating string figures.

Leo Tolstoy's (1828-1910) After the Ball (1903) is another tale within a tale in which the protagonist, Ivan Vasilyevich, recalls an evening in his youth at a grand ball dancing with the beautiful Varinka. His infatuation with the girl is suddenly cooled when on his way home he witnesses Varinka's father, a colonel, commanding his men to inflict a savage punishment upon a Tartar, who is mercilessly beaten through the ranks for his attempt to desert. Tchaikovsky's music for the radio play consists of a seven-part suite. Prominent among the dances is an especially beautiful Waltz that well could have been written by the earlier (and unrelated) Tchaikovsky. In the story the Tartar's punishment takes place as the indifferent strains of a fife and drum are heard. Tchaikovsky portrays the grotesque contrast in the Mazurka with a dash of bitonality. He sets a march tune in C major for piccolo and snare drum against an ominous theme in the G Phrygian mode in the lower strings. The effect is subtle and striking.

Louis Blois

 


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