B. Tchaikovsky: Concertos, Etc / Mynbaev, Et Al

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Lately, we are becoming increasingly aware of the generation of Russian (or Soviet) composers who came between the young moderns Prokofiev and Shostakovich and the...
Lately, we are becoming increasingly aware of the generation of Russian (or Soviet) composers who came between the young moderns Prokofiev and Shostakovich and the post-moderns Gubaidulina, Denisov, and Schnittke. Composers such as Weinberg, Tischenko, and Boris Tchaikovsky were among those heavily influenced by Shostakovich and, while that influence is loud and clear, each of them seemed to absorb a slightly different aspect of the master’s style: Tischenko replicated his edgy sarcasm; Weinberg tapped into the “Jewish” Shostakovich, with its humor and pain; and Boris Tchaikovsky is perhaps the most interesting of all, because he seemed to progress from a sweet, melancholy lyricism—the Russian soul that united Shostakovich with Mussorgsky—to a multifaceted armory which included post-expressionist dissonance and post-modern irony. All these composers made stylistic journeys throughout their careers (inevitably) but, as far as recordings go, we “serious record collectors” are not yet in a position to fully chart those journeys. There are still too many gaps. Nevertheless, in the case of Boris Tchaikovsky (1925–1996), we are fortunate to have two releases of his music, each of which covers a wide chronological period: the recent Hyperion issue of works for string or chamber orchestra (CDA 67413) and this Naxos issue.

The earliest piece here is the Clarinet Concerto of 1957. Its three short movements comprise a gentle moderato in 9/8, lyrical and wandering, followed by a soft moto perpetuo based around rapid scale passages for the soloist, and lastly, a movement marked allegro, in which the clarinet dances along in a sprightly, jazzy scherzando. Overall, this work has a soft-edged quality very like that of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, premiered in the same year (which also uses scale-based themes), and a similar lyrical impulse drives Tchaikovsky’s charming String Sinfonietta of 1953, heard on the Hyperion disc.

Fourteen years later, the composer seems to have lost that innocence, although it is clearly the same hand at work. His Piano Concerto begins harshly with a strong repeated G above middle C from the soloist, and the grim toccata never lets up. This is uncompromising stuff: pointed, almost defiant. Of course, Tchaikovsky had to function under a repressive regime but, even so, I don’t think his music is some sort of internalized autobiography (as Shostakovich’s entire output is simplistically regarded as being). Rather, what we are hearing here is the liberating influence of young composers like Schnittke and the angular late works of Stravinsky, which were at last becoming known in the Soviet Union. The Piano Concerto’s five movements are indicated by Roman numerals. Movement III plays with varied repetitions of a simple motive in the piano against a rocking accompaniment. It could be a lullaby, but a non-committal and oft-interrupted one. The going becomes fiercer in the following movements, IV and V. A snare-drum makes its presence felt, bursting in with an explosive attack that the piano imitates in fourths. The interval of the fourth dominates the thematic material all the way to the work’s sad close: while the bluster finally wears itself out, the sense of unease remains. This is one of those works where you take a breath when it’s all over.

What these two concertos have in common is Tchaikovsky’s individual and fastidious ear. His instrumental colors are employed the same way a painter uses “highlights”: for example, notice the exposed solo French horn throughout the piano concerto, adding a staccato passage here and a nasal muted utterance there—and played on this disc by a real old-style Russian hornist with a fat tone; at first I thought it was a high trombone. Tchaikovsky’s string-writing is terse and rarely used as a harmonic “wash.” The composer does, however, use strings for that purpose in the 1974 song cycle Signs of the Zodiac (a practical help to the vocal soloist, no doubt). A cycle of four songs, plus orchestral prelude, for soprano, harpsichord, and strings, Signs of the Zodiac is a setting of Russian poems in chronological order from the mid 19th century to the late 20th century. All four are in some manner concerned with death and regeneration. The string writing in this work is full and expressive, with the harpsichord typically used for color rather than for its historical connotations. The instrument turns up often in Russian music of this period, notably in Weinberg’s Symphony No. 7 and several works by Shchedrin and Denisov.

I have listened to this magnificent song cycle many times now and found new wonders with each hearing. Naxos supplies translations of the poetry, too. Bravo! Tchaikovsky’s setting mirrors the quixotic changes of mood within the poems—sardonic, introverted, contemplative, or emotive—while, at the same time, developing a series of musical themes first presented in the prelude. Not since Britten’s song cycles have structure and mood-painting coexisted with such mastery. Listen, for example, to the poisonous little dissonances in the overtly straightforward accompaniment to Alexander Blok’s poem “Far Out” (about how cozily we are protected from life’s vicissitudes once we are inside our coffin—such a Russian idea!) Or the fourth song, Nicolai Zabolotsky’s “Signs of the Zodiac”: it begins with the simplest, folklike theme in the harpsichord’s treble to accompany what appears to be a light-hearted poem about life, but, as the poetry gets darker, Tchaikovsky’s strings become increasingly chromatic and restless. In the final stanza—every living thing eventually sleeps beneath the earth, even potatoes, and so must we—the composer achieves a synthesis of Shostakovich-like irony (matching the tone of the poet) with the hard-won finality of a blissful major chord. Shostakovich comes to mind occasionally in this work, namely his Fourteenth Symphony, but Tchaikovsky is more overt, less despairing.

Recording is close-up in the house style, but not uncomfortably so. In fact, the acoustic suits the music, particularly in emphasizing the aggressive side of the Piano Concerto. Performances are excellent from all concerned. Soprano Yana Ivanilova has a lovely voice; she sings with total commitment and pure tone, and the Slavic vibrato is always under control. At Naxos’s price, every music-lover should give this CD a try. (PS: The Clarinet Concerto, Chamber Symphony, and Signs of the Zodiac are performed on another new release, with Eduard Serov conducting the St. Petersburg CO, which I have not yet heard. Also, Albany has released two volumes of a Boris Tchaikovsky edition, showcasing solo piano and chamber music. Evidently his time has come!)

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 17, 2006

  • UPC: 747313272723

  • Catalog Number: 8557727

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Boris Tchaikovsky

  • Conductor: Timur Mynbaev

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra

  • Performer: Anton Prischepa, Iana Ivanilova, Irina Goncharova, Olga Solovieva, Pavel Alfyorov


  1. Concerto for Piano

    Composer: Boris Tchaikovsky

    Ensemble: Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra

    Performer: Pavel Alfyorov (Double Bass), Olga Solovieva (Piano)

    Conductor: Timur Mynbaev

  2. Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra

    Composer: Boris Tchaikovsky

    Ensemble: Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra

    Performer: Anton Prischepa (Clarinet)

    Conductor: Timur Mynbaev

  3. Signs of the Zodiac

    Composer: Boris Tchaikovsky

    Ensemble: Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra

    Performer: Irina Goncharova (Harpsichord), Iana Ivanilova (Soprano), Olga Solovieva (Harpsichord)

    Conductor: Timur Mynbaev