André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice

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COMPOSERS: André Tchaikowsky
LABELS: EuroArts
ALBUM TITLE: André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice
WORKS: The Merchant of Venice
PERFORMER: Christopher Ainslie, Jason Bridges, Adrian Eröd, Verena Gunz, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, Kathryn Lewek, David Stout, Charles Workman; Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Erik Nielsen; dir. Keith Warner


Emigré Polish pianist-composer André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, having lived just long enough to complete The Merchant of Venice. Its world premiere staging, at the Bregenz Festival three decades later, revealed major strengths in work that was a personal labour of love for its creator, who was evidently drawn to the characters of the homosexual Antonio and his antagonist, Shylock the Jew (Tchaikowsky himself was both). In an excellent documentary following the production’s rehearsal process, director Keith Warner points out how the two characters must on some level be aware of each other as outsiders, as the composer felt himself to be also.


The score has its share of built-in problems, relating centrally to the libretto by John O’Brien, and drawing directly on the play’s text: there’s an all-too-insistent sense of composer and librettist saying to each other ‘We can’t leave that bit out’. The result is a three-act design which feels too long in musical terms, and is not helped by the excessive wordiness of blank verse as a medium for operatic treatment. The fluency of Tchaikowsky’s post-Bergian, mildly modernist idiom goes a fair way towards overcoming this problem, and his opera does indeed grip the attention throughout – even if this surely relates more to Shakespeare’s enthralling interplay of plot, character and verse than to the score itself which, though beautifully written, doesn’t vary its own pace enough to match. Then again, the excellence of the performance has much to say about its composer’s skill in writing for voices: countertenor Christopher Ainslie’s Antonio is outstanding, Adrian Eröd’s Shylock also, with Richard Angas contributing a small but memorable cameo as the Duke of Venice. Keith Warner’s direction is incisive and (mostly) no-nonsense; Ashley Martin-Davis’s set designs are ingenious and atmospheric; and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s playing under Erik Nielsen is close to flawless. Malcolm Hayes