It’s a compilation that reveals all facets of the Russian master. David Nice takes a closer look at Brilliant Classics’ comprehensive release of the composer’s works.
Which is the real Tchaikovsky: the unhappy man yearning for true love and pouring out his soul in such works as the Sixth (‘Pathétique’) Symphony, which some have seen as the prophecy of his own death, or the fantastical toymaker dispensing Christmas cheer, and just a little spookiness, in The Nutcracker? The answer, of course, is both, and much more in between. It takes Brilliant’s 60 CDs to tell the full story of a consummate professional as well as an inspired genius who succeeded in every genre he touched: opera, ballet, programmatic ‘fantasy overtures’, symphonies and concertos, chamber music, piano miniatures and liturgical works.
The core of Tchaikovsky’s reputation in the concert hall still rests on a handful of masterpieces, namely the last three of the six symphonies – seven if you include Manfred – the First Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. So it is to Brilliant’s credit that it includes as extras some of the historical performances which have accumulated in the Russian tradition: there’s Yevgeny Mravinsky, master conductor of the symphonies at the helm of the Leningrad Philharmonic, as well as pianists like Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter – whose interpretations of the First Piano Concerto can be compared – and that greatest of all violinists, David Oistrakh.
Relative rarities show Tchaikovsky as experimenter. The Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra finds the composer ringing the changes on form: the soloist holds himself grandly aloof from the ensemble in the first movement, going his own way in a resplendent cadenza, while the title of the second, ‘Contrasts’, gives some idea of what Tchaikovsky wanted to convey. Surprising juxtapositions of mood also surface in the first three of the four orchestral suites, composed on holiday from the symphony and giving Tchaikovsky free rein to experiment with such unorthodox orchestral sonorities as the high frequencies of the First Suite’s ‘Marche miniature’ or the darker colours of the Third’s ‘Valse mélancolique’. The Tchaikovsky of the atmospheric miniature is also to be heard in the stream of brilliant ideas which mark out the three ballets in their entirety as well as in two little-known sets of incidental music – for Ostrovsky’s ‘spring fairytale’ The Snow Maiden, scored some time before Rimsky-Korsakov turned the play into an opera, and for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
All the major operas are to be found here – and how little we know of them. Two classic Soviet performances give us a rare chance to hear how Tchaikovsky more consciously courted a wider audience/grander scale after the relative intimacy of his ‘lyrical scenes after Pushkin’ Eugene Onegin, in the French-style grand opera about Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orleans, and the melodramatic Charodeika (The Enchantress). That conducting champion of the rich and rare, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, marshals an Italian company and Russian principals for the early nationalist flourishes of The Oprichnik, about the ‘iron ring’ around Ivan the Terrible, and the lyric-fantastic comedy Cherevichki (The Slippers), based on a tale by Gogol. The crowning glory, performance-wise, of the operatic sequence is surely the 1952 recording of Tchaikovsky’s ‘masterpiece of horror’, as Janáček called it, The Queen of Spades; the incomparably natural delivery of the principals made it an easy winner when I compared all available recordings of the work for BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library.
Songs and piano music are usually limited to the usual suspects on a single CD, but here soprano Ljuba Kazarnovskaya and pianist Michael Ponti respectively run the gamut. It’s especially intriguing in these contexts to hear the shorter pieces which provided the basis for Stravinsky’s ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Indeed, it is not always acknowledged that Stravinsky, as much as Rachmaninov, was Tchaikovsky’s natural heir. By hearing the grand master’s works in the round, we can hear how much of his music points to the future in its orchestration and form, while never losing sight of the great melodies which indicate what Stravinsky saw as the more mysterious, supernatural source of Tchaikovsky’s infallible inspiration.