About this Recording
8.573207 - TCHAIKOVSKY, B.: Piano Quintet / The War Suite (Solovieva, Anisimov, Petcu-Colan, Vanbrugh Quartet)

Boris Tchaikovsky (1925–1996)
Piano Quintet • The War Suite


The name of Boris Tchaikovsky is revered in Russian music circles as one of the most original composers of the post-Shostakovich generation. His music is known for its formal innovation and robust lyricism, both of which are guided by an impeccable internal logic and a strong sense of purpose. In a relatively long creative life he amassed a formidable catalogue of works that includes four symphonies, four concerti, six string quartets, a variety of chamber and orchestral music for various instrumental ensembles, piano and vocal music, and numerous film scores.

The two works presented on the current disc, both dating from the 1960s, hold a special place in the Tchaikovsky catalogue. The Piano Quintet (1962) has been called Tchaikovsky’s finest chamber work, and it also marks an important transition in his stylistic evolution. The War Suite (1964/2011), here in its première recording, derives from one of the composer’s film scores, and provides, in turn, the principal material for another notable work in the composer’s oeuvre, the Third String Quartet. The two near contemporaneous works make compatible disc mates in that the string quartet forms the instrumental basis of each, with the addition of a fifth instrument, a piano in the case of the Quintet, and a clarinet in The War Suite.

The Piano Quintet is a work of great depth and beauty, an outstanding example of Tchaikovsky testing his newly evolving language in the pursuit of formal innovation. The opening movement, Moderato, captures the power and confidence of Tchaikovsky’s lyrical writing. The entire movement is anchored in a steady rhythmic pulse established by the solo piano’s long introductory paragraph in parallel octaves. It is from this dignified introduction that all the subsequent material will derive. The steady metric of four quarter notes per measure is occasionally offset with a triplet or a dotted half, providing moments of flexibility that sow the seeds for subsequent lyrical expansion. This embryonic material is cast into relief by the strings in short defining phrases that are then strung together, broken apart, and then reunited in broad eloquent phrases. The sublime, songful dialogue between piano and strings builds to a passage of stirring intensity, after which the music quietly subsides.

The second movement, Allegro, is a rondo whose mercurial episodes of alternating mood, tempo, and texture, feature Tchaikovsky’s mosaic approach to composition at its most colourful. The lyrical material primarily belongs to the strings while the piano provides the rhythmic element. The muted violin introduces a breathless succession of short phrases that play hide-and-seek with each other as the music progresses. The solo piano places a momentary halt to the momentum with the first of five short contemplative passages marked Largo that will serve as points of repose; it then prods the tempo back to Allegro with an invigorating motif that ushers in the last new element to the proceedings. The thematic elements take turns, react to one other, and only momentarily engage in a developmental confrontation, turning out one melodic blossom after another.

The third movement, Allegro, takes the form of a theme and variations. The strong features of the short, four-bar theme, introduced by the piano, allow a wide range of possibilities as the theme undergoes a rugged course of alteration, distortion, and deformation. The turns of phrase, in their aggressive and ironic demeanour, may bring to mind some of Shostakovich’s scherzo movements. As one often finds in Tchaikovsky’s music, the rhythmic element provides the driving force of the music.

The final Adagio is one of Tchaikovsky’s isorhythmic constructions in which a movement is entirely built on thematic material carved out of the successive iterations of a single rhythmic pattern. We find the same approach, for example, in the outer movements of his 1971 Piano Concerto (Naxos 8.557727). Here, the rhythmic kernel is a double iambic foot, the short-long/short-long tattoo heard at the outset. Given this formidable constraint, the music is taken through a surprisingly rich lyrical trajectory and brings the Quintet to a tenderly expressive conclusion.

The War Suite is based on the music Tchaikovsky wrote for the film While Defending the Front Line (Lenfilm, 1964), directed by Yuli Fait. The work stands out among Tchaikovsky’s film music in its being scored modestly for string quartet, as per the director’s original request, with the addition of a solo clarinet, at the suggestion of the composer [in three movements of the film score (corresponding to movements II, VII, XI of the Suite) a guitar is used instead of the second violin. In the Suite the guitar is replaced by the violin]. Slim in its instrumentation, the music forms an evocative part of the film, a wartime drama about heroism, friendship, and lost love.

Shortly after the release of the film, the score went missing and was assumed forever lost. A full decade after the composer’s death, and after much searching, the Boris Tchaikovsky Society located the manuscript in the Central Archive for Literature and Arts in St Petersburg. The War Suite was then compiled and edited by two of Tchaikovsky’s former composition students, Elena Astafieva (the main editor) and Stanislav Prokudin.

The eleven movements of the Suite do not follow the same order as the film’s cues, but rather follow a separate logical sequence intended for concert performance. The Suite leads with the film’s motto theme, the sentimental waltz heard when the two lovers, Rusanov and Katya, meet for the last time. The central movement, IV, is based on the same theme, and is drawn from an earlier passage when the two have their first intimate conversation. The theme, which is heard with every appearance of the clarinet, again returns in the Suite’s final movement, when Rusanov learns of the death of Katya. The emotional arc of the film, featuring love’s bloom and eventual destruction, is thus recapitulated in these key moments in the Suite. In its entirety, the music of The War Suite is about the travails of war, its battles and losses, successes and failures, the experiences and individual feelings of the combatants. All this is masterfully created by Boris Tchaikovsky.

The first concert performance of The War Suite took place in October 2012 at the Irish-Russian Chamber Music Festival, held in the Concert Hall of the Moscow Conservatory Central Musical School. The performers were the same as those heard on this recording—The Vanbrugh Quartet and clarinetist Maxim Anisimov.

Three years after the release of While Defending the Front Line, in 1967, Tchaikovsky composed his Third String Quartet, drawing on the music he composed for the film in four of the Quartet’s six movements. The Third Quartet was praised by Shostakovich, and some scholars pointed the links between Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet and Shostakovich’s last, Fifteenth Quartet (1974).

The following indicates where Tchaikovsky’s music is used in the film.

The screenplay of While Defending the Front Line is based on two novels, The Battle for Control of the Heights (the film’s initial title) and Pavlik, by the famous Russian writer Yuri Markovich Nagibin [1920–1994]. Before becoming a war correspondent for the newspaper Trud, Nagibin served on active duty during World War II at the Volkhov Front, south east of Leningrad, the setting of the film.

It is the winter of 1942. During a bombing raid, a young political officer, Rusanov (Igor Kosukhin), finds himself huddled in a trench next to a signal woman, Katya (Svetlana Svetlichnaya). We hear the sentimental waltz played by the solo clarinet in the Suite’s movement IV (The Trench in the original film score). The two become further acquainted while travelling together toward the front line, where they’ve been dispatched, along with Captain Shaternikov (Victor Avdyushko), who will become good friends with Rusanov. In the third movement of the Suite, The Road, the long, yearning notes of the upper strings are played against an icy carpet of eighth notes played col legno and then spiccato on the cello. Later that evening, the three comrades take refuge in a large country house. Here Rusanov rescues Katya from the unwanted attention of drunken officers who are also quartered there. Stepping out on the porch of the house, they enjoy a few moments of solitude with each other. At this point we hear the sentimental waltz played by the clarinet, adorned by the occasional strumming on the strings in the seventh movement, Country House.

The next morning Rusanov and Shaternikov head toward the front lines to join the military unit’s preparations for battle. The strings reflect the escalating tension with muted pizzicato and scurrying glissandi in the tenth movement, The Battle. When the commander of the unit is killed, Captain Shaternikov takes charge and leads the troops forward. The German tanks roll into view, as we hear the trudging gait of the Suite’s fifth movement, Tanks. While the unit takes the offensive, Shaternikov and Rusanov steal closer to enemy lines by way of an arduous swamp passage. We hear the solo cello’s stressful exhortations in the Suite’s eighth movement, The Swamp.

In the evening, Rusanov has misgivings when he learns that the older officers intend to distribute propaganda leaflets with false information to the Germans. He decides to contact command headquarters to urge them to prohibit this action. While he drives to the contact point to send the intended telegram, his vehicle is attacked by German soldiers. During the exchange of gunfire, we hear the tense lyrical strains and rhythmic punctuations of the second movement of the Suite, Bolshak, or High Road.

Arriving at the contact point, he meets up with Katya, who dispatches the telegram. She urges Rusanov to stay until morning. But the officer feels his place is with his troops back at the camp. Before he departs, the two lovers again step out on the same porch where they had previously met. They now fall into a wordless embrace. It is the last time they will see each other alive. This scene was a favourite of director Fait’s, who confesses to having removed the original dialogue of the script to allow Tchaikovsky’s waltz to capture, unimpeded, the tenderness of the moment. It is at this point we hear the waltz theme played on the cello and then clarinet in the Suite’s first movement, Farewell.

Departing, Rusanov embarks upon a daring mission of infiltrating the enemy lines and broadcasting a propaganda message from a lorry outfitted with a loudspeaker. In the course of the mission, Rusanov’s team manages to escape a barrage of enemy gunfire. In the sentimental scene that follows, Shaternikov and Rusanov bid a final farewell to each other over the wistful strains of the ninth movement of the Suite, Divarication.

Rusanov makes his way back to the contact point where he hopes to reunite with Katya. He enters the same country house of their earlier encounters and approaches a woman, thinking she is Katya. We hear the final return of the waltz theme for clarinet and strings in the eleventh movement of the Suite, Appointment. The moment he realizes the woman is not who he thinks she is, the music stops. The woman informs Rusanov that Katya has just been killed by a stray bullet. In the final scene of the film, the heartbroken Rusanov stands outside the house in silence.

One movement of the Suite, the sixth, Conclusion, featuring a mournful variant of the waltz theme, had been originally intended for the final scene, but was not included in the film.

Louis Blois

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