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Hyperion Records

CDA66939 - Tchaikovsky: Piano Sonatas
(Originally issued on CDH55215)

Recording details: November 1993
All Saints, Petersham, United Kingdom
Produced by Tryggvi Tryggvason
Engineered by Tryggvi Tryggvason
Release date: March 1997
DISCID: 870FD409
Total duration: 67 minutes 32 seconds

'Leslie Howard's mammoth trek through Liszt's complete piano compositions and transcriptions (also for Hyperion) marks him out as a pianist quite undaunted by the super-virtuosic, but he employs his virtuosity entirely for the tasteful interpretation of the music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Much stirring music, some unexpected delicacies, and generally walloping performances' (The Observer)

'Powerful performances of great advocacy in exemplary sonics' (Classic CD)

'I am happy to have heard these beautifully recorded, fully convincing performances by a pianist with a rich sound and ample technique who believes in what he is doing. The warm, clear recorded sound and Howard's playing make this the Tchaikovsky piano disc to acquire' (Fanfare, USA)

'Un disque unique en son genre et absolument splendide' (Répertoire, France)

'Hay que referirse al extraordinario rigor y sensibilidad musical de Howard: precisión, equilibrio, brillantez, fraseo amplio y cálido, riqueza expresiva' (Scherzo, Spain)

Piano Sonatas
Andante  [5'59]
Allegro vivo  [6'22]

Although only one, the last to be written, of Tchaikovsky's piano sonatas was published during his lifetime, there are, strictly speaking, three such works.

The single-movement F minor work of 1863/4 was abandoned incomplete and untitled, though the composer was later to reuse some of the material; it here receives a rare performance—and its first recording—in a version completed by Leslie Howard.

The second sonata to be composed (it was published posthumously, accounting for the apparently late Opus number) adopts the more typical four-movement structure, and while it would not do to make exaggerated claims for the work, it is a good deal better than its critics frequently allow.

The third sonata, the only one to have remained firmly in the repertoire, is a major work whose felicities are numerous and memorable, offering the pianist an opportunity to revel in Tchaikovsky's broad palette of sound.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Tchaikovsky was especially fond of the piano: he practised constantly, not least in his almost daily readings of the vocal scores of operas, and throughout his composing life he produced a large body of piano music. Much of this output has been unfairly neglected amidst complaint that the music does not lie well for the hands and that it exploits only a narrow range of the piano’s possibilities. Even his most important piano work—the Grand Sonata, Op 37—has had very few apologists, and it has often been suggested that this music would fare better were it orchestrated. But, like Schubert and Dvorák, whose piano-writing often shows similar awkwardness, Tchaikovsky is so convincing in purely musical terms that to neglect the piano works on technical grounds would be simply churlish.

Strictly speaking there are three piano sonatas by Tchaikovsky, although the last to be composed was the only one published in his lifetime. Thus the Op 37 Sonata is the third, the C sharp minor Sonata of 1865 the second, and the single-movement F minor work of 1863/4 the first.

Sonata ‘No 1’ in F minor 1863/4
We do not know either the reason for the first sonata’s genesis, or that for its being abandoned incomplete and untitled; but the remaining torso is well worth rescuing—indeed, the material is every bit as strong as that of the C sharp minor work of the following year. The F minor movement first appeared (entitled Allegro) in the old Russian collected edition of Tchaikovsky’s works, with a great many editorial suggestions relating to missing accidentals, but also with numerous errors: misreadings, slips of the pen and uncorrected engraving mistakes. Tchaikovsky’s manuscript consists of 172 bars of music: a sonata exposition without introduction, and with a first-time bar leading to its repetition. The manuscript breaks off at an advanced stage of the development section. The present completion involved constructing a short return to the principal theme, the reworking of the transition and some slight varying of the second subject, and the writing of a short coda from a cancelled transition passage in Tchaikovsky’s manuscript, with a nod to the coda of another early Tchaikovsky piece, the Scherzo à la russe, Op 1 No 1. The aim throughout was, of course, to add as little new material as possible. The completed sonata movement, which runs to 338 bars of music lasting about ten minutes in performance, makes available to the public the work of a confident young Tchaikovsky whose rhetorical gestures and melodic lyricism anticipate the personal trademarks of the mature master. (Tchaikovsky adapted the second theme of this work to serve as the trio section of his Scherzo, Op 2 No 2.)

Sonata ‘No 2’ in C sharp minor Op 80
Much of Tchaikovsky’s music that remained in manuscript at his death was subsequently seen through the press by the Russian composer and pedagogue Sergey Taneyev (who also completed a number of unfinished works, notably the remaining two movements of the hastily issued third piano concerto—the Andante and Finale—which was published as Tchaikovsky’s Op 79). This accounts for the apparently late opus number of the C sharp minor Piano Sonata which, nonetheless, antedates his Op 1. Whilst it would not do to make exaggerated claims for this work, it is certainly better than its critics frequently allow: the bold gestures at the opening of the first movement, a transition passage which is echoed in Eugene Onegin, a typically yearning second subject, and a codetta suggestive of Romeo and Juliet all command notice. (Four bars unaccountably missing from the recapitulation of the second subject are here easily restored by analogy.)

The strangely formed Andante consists of a brief lyrical theme interrupted by a little flourish, followed by a mazurka-like interlude, a variation which retains the mazurka rhythm for an accompaniment, a brief reprise of the mazurka, and a short florid coda on the main theme. Clearly, the basic tempo requires several modifications for the various sections to combine happily, and Tchaikovsky makes his intentions clear by his rhythmic layout of the themes where they are combined.

The Scherzo marks the first outing for material which later occupied the same position in the first symphony, and draws attention to the fundamentally orchestral quality of Tchaikovsky’s piano-writing. Sweet though the trio section is, it does not quite match the equivalent but newly composed passage in the later symphony. It returns for the coda, which moves without a break into a dramatic Adagio designed to introduce the finale.

The busy opening of the Allegro vivo is more rhetorical than melodic, and in its youthfully gauche self-importance calls to mind the equivalent movement of Chopin’s early Op 4 Sonata. The second theme has many a characteristic of the later Tchaikovsky despite its reckless asymmetry of phrase, but nothing quite prepares the listener for the sudden abandonment of the main key (now enharmonically shifted to D flat major) at the coda, which only just manages to scramble home in triumph.

Grand Sonata ‘No 3’ in G major Op 37
The Grande Sonate which Tchaikovsky wrote for Karl Klindworth in 1878 is a major work, again despite some oft-repeated unkind criticism—generally to do with the Schumannesque block chords which occasionally threaten to dominate the texture. (It is the pianist’s happy task to assist Tchaikovsky to a rather broader sound-world than his limited keyboard imagination sometimes suggests at first glance.) But the work’s felicities are numerous and memorable and, as Robert Threlfall wrote in a concert note in 1991, ‘the author of the fourth symphony and second concerto is instantly and pleasurably recognized.’

The very grand first movement opens with the famous block chords in a theme which will underpin the whole structure, but which gives way to a more decorative melody, the two parts of the theme being united by the dotted rhythm. The delicate second subject is one of its composer’s happiest inspirations, and it is capped by a codetta which at once recalls the opening theme as well as the plainsong Dies irae—a motif more readily associated with Rachmaninov than with his mentor.

The slow movement is largely concerned with a theme of simplicity so stunning that one almost fails to see that it is based on just two notes a semitone apart, and of course it is the fecundity of Tchaikovsky’s harmonic imagination that disguises it. Almost an operatic scena, the music is interrupted by an interlude in characteristic dotted rhythm before a variation of the first theme concludes the first part. The central Moderato con animazione introduces one of Tchaikovsky’s great lyrical flights of melody. The first theme returns swathed in decoration and the following return of the interlude is extended to a mighty climax before a magical coda recalls the central theme with a gentle syncopated accompaniment.

Syncopation dominates the Scherzo—one of Tchaikovsky’s really inventive pieces of pianistic devilry and a cousin to the fiendish Scherzo of the ‘Manfred’ symphony—even in the almost lyrical trio section, and by the time the coda is reached the position of the first beat in the bar has been finally lost to the ear, to be recovered only at the very end.

If the recurring principal theme of the Finale is not this composer’s most subtle, it generates plenty of energy and allows for a fine contrast with the other material: a scherzando second theme that alternates imitations of string and wind choirs, and a wonderfully warm central theme which rises to heights of enthusiasm. Tchaikovsky’s familiar climactic sequences are ubiquitous, but the actual coda is a restrained and valedictory account of the central theme over the constantly repeated keynote, bringing the work to a firm and steady conclusion.

Leslie Howard © 1997

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