Tchaikovsky

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COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Tchaikovsky: The Seasons
WORKS: The Seasons, Op. 37b; Six Morceaux, Op. 19
PERFORMER: Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 68028

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Given the ubiquity of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music, it always seems surprising that his piano music is not played more often. The Seasons – a more accurate title would be The Months – is the best known of his more substantial works. It offers a series of 12 vignettes akin to Schumann’s cycles such as Kinderszenen and Waldszenen – one for each month, quoting a few lines from a pertinent poem. It was a commission from the editor of the journal Nuvellist and one piece per month was printed in each issue through 1876 (note to BBC Music Magazine editor: now, there’s an idea?). These are delicate, intimate pieces, many of which display sterling quality: the heat-hazed ‘June (Barcarolle)’ and haunting ‘October (Chant d’automne)’ in particular are small-scale masterpieces.

Tchaikovsky piano CDs are like buses, of course, and here come two at once. The youthful winner of the 2012 Honens Prize, Pavel Kolesnikov from Novosibirsk, pairs The Seasons with the composer’s Six morceaux, Op. 19 on his recording for Hyperion. Some of the latter are bigger morsels than others: the set finishes with a substantial Theme and Variations that is full of character, sparkle and invention. Kolesnikov’s interpretation of The Seasons is deeply poetic and sensitive, almost sepia-toned in its probing nostalgia, each piece exquisitely shaped and songful. He prefaces his account in the booklet with a touching note about his search for his own roots. I have a small quibble, though, with the slightly dry sound and the audible pedal.

The Moldovan-born pianist Alexander Paley offers a two-CD set on the Aparté label in which the second work is Tchaikovsky’s Grande Sonate, Op. 37 – a big sibling to The Seasons, and one similarly too rare in performance. Here, Tchaikovsky is in near–symphonic mode, creating an enormously demanding four-movement work (incidentally, the sonata is dedicated to Liszt’s pupil Karl Klindworth, who  taught at the Moscow Conservatoire and, later, became foster-father to a young English girl named Winifred, whom he introduced to Siegfried Wagner…).

Like many composers who were at their finest in orchestral pieces, Tchaikovsky seems to fall into the trap of trying to squeeze almost too much into one instrument, resulting in a sense of overambition that sometimes means the music becomes too loud for too long; Paley’s pacing could perhaps be more measured, but it is difficult to blame him entirely. He is a bigger-boned, bigger-toned pianist than Kolesnikov and certainly has the virtuoso flair to make the music leap off the page in a convincing bid to earn it a place in the standard repertoire.

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Jessica Duchen