About this Recording

Chill with Tchaikovsky

Chill with Tchaikovsky


At first glance Tchaikovsky does not seem easily to fit the “Chill” bill. He is known for pieces such as the 1812 Overture, music which is impassioned and animated in distinctly Russian style, often fiery, even ballistic, and infused with darker moments inspired by the composer’s personal turmoil. However he also wrote some of the most beautiful, fragile and ethereal ballet music that has ever been choreographed, as well as lyrical slow symphonic movements and haunting songs. His unique talent lay in his inspired and inventive use of melody, seen at its best in works such as the Nutcracker with its myriad infectious tunes. Many of Tchaikovsky’s melodies are based on folksongs he collected, predominantly Russian and Ukrainian but also Polish, Italian, Spanish and French (this last seen in the Piano Concerto No. 1, in this collection).


Tchaikovsky is a troubled figure in the list of great composers, perhaps more so than most. He was a highly sensitive child, prone to shyness and anxiousness, and the death of his beloved mother when he was 14 further compounded these traits. His later life brought public accusations of homosexuality, leading him to enter hastily into marriage with an admirer of his music whom he barely knew, a marriage which failed almost immediately when the composer found himself physically repulsed by his wife. The stress of this episode, coupled with his lifelong attempts to conceal his homosexuality, led to several nervous breakdowns and an attempt at suicide. However a more constructive platonic relationship soon followed in the form of Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy benefactress whose patronage of Tchaikovsky allowed the composer to abandon his teaching and concentrate exclusively on composition. Her only stipulation: that the two never met, and accordingly they corresponded intimately by letter from 1876 until 1890, a relationship which provided a much-needed stability and emotional support for the neurotic composer.


Although music allowed him an outlet for his emotions, as a composer Tchaikovsky found himself somewhat out of place with his contemporaries: the group of Russian composers known as the “Mighty Handful” (Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Balakirev and Mussorgsky) often fiercely criticised Tchaikovsky and his music for its lack of nationalism. While they were proudly self-taught and set great store by use of Russian folksong in purely Russian idioms, Tchaikovsky chose to use Russian influences but in Western forms, learned during his time at the St Petersburg conservatory. Ironically, Stravinsky later called him “the most Russian of us all”, and for many Tchaikovsky remains the Russian composer, leaving a legacy of incomparably beautiful and powerful music with Russian nationalism at its very heart.


Track 1

The Sleeping Beauty Op. 66: Entrance of the Good Fairies

Despite Swan Lake’s rather lukewarm reception eleven years before, when Tchaikovsky was asked by the Director of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg to provide the music for a ballet based on the Perrault fairytale La belle au bois dormant he was immediately enthusiastic, writing: "It suits me perfectly, and I couldn´t ask for anything better than to compose the music for it." The Tsar attended the dress rehearsal and damned it with faint praise, calling it "very nice", yet Sleeping Beauty was an instant success with the public and has often been described as the greatest ballet score ever written.



            To hear The Sleeping Beauty in its entirety, try:

            8.550490-492          The Sleeping Beauty (3 CDs)

                        Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra

                        Andrew Mogrelia


Track 2

Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 19, No. 4

The Nocturne was written in 1873 and was originally intended for piano, although Tchaikovsky himself arranged it in the version we hear here for cello and orchestra, probably as a result of his meeting in Paris with a young Russian cellist, Anatoly Brandukov whom he greatly admired. This is one of many pieces Tchaikovsky wrote to aid children learning the piano.


            To hear the Nocturne in C sharp minor in its original arrangement for piano, try:

            8.553330       Piano Music, Vol. 2

                        Oxana Yablonskaya (piano)


Tracks 3, 4, 5 and 13

Nutcracker: Danse Arabe / Danse Chinoise / Danse des mirlitons / Danse de la fée

Nutcracker was written to a text by E.T.A. Hoffmann (a celebrated writer of grotesque horror stories) and concerns a little girl, Clara, who is given a toy nutcracker in the shape of a soldier for Christmas by a mysterious guest at her parents’ party. The Nutcracker comes alive during the night along with the other toys and leads a battle against an army of mice. Clara saves the Nutcracker as he is about to be defeated by the Mouse King and witnesses his transformation into a handsome prince. In gratitude the Prince transports Clara to his kingdom, Confiturenburg, a magical land of sweets.


Nutcracker was not an immediate success, but has since become one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works and a perennial Christmas favourite. The two pieces included here are both taken from the Nutcracker Suite, a collection of eight of the most popular short pieces from the ballet, compiled to enable them to be performed as concert pieces without a full ballet production. Danse arabe has an elegant swaying 3/4 rhythm with muted strings and soft woodwind providing an vivid picture of an exotic Arabian dance, while the dainty Dance de la fée  (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy) employs the celeste as its principal instrument, an instrument which had only recently been invented at the time and which Tchaikovsky had heard while on a trip to Paris.



            To hear the Nutcracker Suite along with another of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Swan Lake, try:        

            8.553271       Nutcracker (Highlights); Swan Lake (Highlights)

                        Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Slovak Symphony Orchestra

                        Ondrej Lenard / Michael Halász


            For a narrated version of Nutcracker, try:

            8.555342       Nutcracker (paired with Rimsky-Korsakov: Christmas Eve)

                        Prunella Scales (narrator)

                        Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra

                        Michael Halász / Igor Golovschin


Track 6

Chanson triste in G minor

The Twelve Pieces, Op. 40, were written in 1878, the year after the breakdown of Tchaikovsky’s marriage and his attempted suicide. Tchaikovsky was living abroad following advice from his doctor and wrote these piano pieces concurrently with the Violin Concerto in Italy and Switzerland, completing them at his brother-in-law’s estate at Kamenka in the Ukraine where he had often found solace. The popularity of his piano pieces is illustrated by the prices he demanded of his publisher: 50 roubles for the violin concerto, 300 for Op. 40.


            To hear Chanson triste and other piano pieces from Tchaikovsky’s collection, try:

            8.550233       The Seasons; Chanson triste; Songs Without Words;  Nocturne

                        Ilona Prunyi (piano)

Track 7

Serenade for Strings: Waltzer

The Serenade (1880) began its life as a symphony or string quintet but Tchaikovsky eventually decided that “the larger the string orchestra employed, the better” and rewrote it for string orchestra. Upon its completion the work occasioned rapturous praise from the normally fiercely critical Anton Rubenstein, Tchaikovsky’s former teacher, largely owing to the exquisite string writing and the unusual (for Tchaikovsky) sparseness of the scoring, seen in the refined, ballet-like Waltz here.

            To hear the complete Serenade and more of Tchaikovsky’s chamber music, try:

            8.550404       Serenade for Strings; Souvenir de Florence

                        Vienna Chamber Orchestra

                        Philippe Entremont


Track 8

The Snow Maiden Op. 12: Declamation of the Fairy of Spring

The Snow Maiden, written by playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, was intended to be a combination of play, ballet and opera with a fairytale story. Tchaikovsky was asked to provide incidental music for the production, staged in 1873, and the score immediately won greater praise than the play itself. However Tchaikovsky was not amused when Rimsky-Korsakov chose to use the story a few years later, producing a full-length opera which has now overshadowed Tchaikovsky’s music.


            To hear the Snow Maiden, try:

            8.553856       The Snow Maiden

                        Moscow Capella

                        Moscow Symphony Orchestra

                        Igor Golovchin


Track 9

Symphony No. 6 in B minor Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’: Allegro con grazia

This is perhaps the most revealing of Tchaikovsky’s works. It was premiered just nine days before the composer’s death on November 6th 1893 and concerns itself largely with mortality, with a progression through life, love, disappointment and death as set out in the composer’s notes of 1892. The second “love” movement is scored unusually in 5/4 time, lending the music a lilting light-hearted air, before the middle section brings in forbidding descending scales reminding us of the onset of death.


            To hear Symphony No. 6, try:

            8.550782       Symphony No. 6; Francesca da Rimini

                        Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

                        Antoni Wit


Track 10

Swan Lake: Scene

Swan Lake was the first of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, with its early origins in a home entertainment the composer had devised for his sister’s children. The story concerns a princess, Odette, who is changed into a white swan by a wicked magician. When Prince Siegfried meets and falls in love with her the spell is all but broken.

However the dastardly magician Rotbart attempts to foil her happiness by substituting his own daughter Odile for Odette, in the form of a black swan. Yet true love conquers in the end and the lovers live (in most versions) happily ever after. The famous “swan” theme recurs all the way through the ballet and is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music, although the ballet itself only won fame after the composer’s death.


            To hear Swan Lake  in its entirety, try:

            8.550246-247          Swan Lake (complete ballet) (2 CDs)

                        Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)

                        Ondrej Lenárd


Track 11

Album for the Young Op. 39: Sweet Dreams

Like the Nocturne in C sharp minor, this collection of 24 short pieces was intended to make learning the piano more enjoyable for children, with each piece providing a study in a song form. Each has a descriptive title and an individual personality and as its name suggests, Sweet Dreams has a lullaby feel, with its sweet melody and 3/4 time signature.


            To hear the other 23 pieces from Album for the Young, try:

            8.550885       Piano Music for Children

                        Idil Biret (piano)


Track 12

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35: 2nd movt (Canzonetta: Andante)

One of Tchaikovsky’s most enduring and popular works, the Violin Concerto was written during a stay in the Swiss resort of Clarens in March 1878. Tchaikovsky wrote the first movement in an astounding two days and the entire concerto was completed a week later. However it did not receive its première until two years later, when it was roundly condemned by the well-known critic Eduard Hanslick, who saw it as a trivial and barbarous work.


            To hear the rest of the Violin Concerto , try:

            8.550124       Violin Concerto; Sérénade Mélancolique; Souvenir d’un lieu cher

                        Takako Nishizaki (violin)

                        Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra

                        Kenneth Jean


Track 14

Valse sentimentale in F Minor, Op. 51 No. 6

This was originally written for piano and constitutes the last of a set of six pieces written in 1882 when Tchaikovsky was in severe financial straits. As a letter to his brother Modest shows, these pieces were written entirely for the money they would provide. Here the Valse sentimentale is arranged for flute and harp.


            To hear the Valse sentimentale in its original arrangement for piano, try:

            8.553063       Piano Music Vol. 1

                        Oxana Yablonskaya (piano)


Track 15

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat-minor, Op. 23: Second Movement (Andantino semplice - Prestissimo - Tempo 1)

When in January of 1875 Tchaikovsky played an early draft of the Piano Concerto to his teacher, Nikolai Rubenstein, the response was not what he had hoped for. Rubenstein, to whom Tchaikovsky had intended to dedicate the work, described it as “worthless and unplayable... bad, trivial, vulgar”. The critics were not much kinder, one even going so far as to compare it as “like the first pancake… a flop”. However the public gave it an enthusiastic reception and the work has justly become a standard in the piano repertoire as well as a romantic favourite, due in no small part to the lyrical second movement performed here.


            To hear the rest of the Piano Concerto No. 1, try:

            8.550819       Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3

                        Bernd Glemser (piano)

                        Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

                        Antoni Wit



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