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Hyperion Records

LSO0710 - Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos 1-3

Recording details: March 2011
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson
Release date: October 2012
Total duration: 125 minutes 56 seconds

'It is LSO Live’s policy to exclude applause. However, given the infectious quality of the music-making, you may feel inclined to append your own' (Gramophone)

'Back in the Russian repertory that he knows so well, and to which he responds more vividly than perhaps any other conductor alive today, Gergiev is once again irresistible … the LSO's playing is consistently outstanding, too' (The Guardian)

'I was entranced from beginning to end by the panache, finesse and imagination ... this is a set where everything seems to go right in terms of sound, interpretation and playing. I’ll be very surprised if it’s not on my list of 2012 favourites' (Limelight, Australia)

Symphonies Nos 1-3
Allegro tranquillo  [12'01]
Andante elegiaco  [10'33]

Tchaikovsky's early symphonies are full of rich expressive melodies—something for which he had a natural talent. They contain influences of Russian nationalism and folk tunes, particularly in Symphony No 2 ('Little Russian') and No 1, which hints at a Russian landscape. The choreographer George Balanchine exploited the dance-like nature of No 3 by using it as the basis for the final part of his ballet masterpiece, Jewels.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Tchaikovsky was well into his twenties when he abandoned an unpromising career as a civil servant in the Russian Ministry of Justice and began to study music seriously, at first privately and then at the newly-established St Petersburg Conservatory. Immediately after graduating, he was offered a teaching post at the even newer Moscow Conservatory, and it was during his early months there that he composed the First Symphony. Its birth was accompanied by the anxiety and self-doubt that Tchaikovsky was never to overcome, even as a mature and established master.

The symphony turned out to be a wonderful and original piece, full of natural, spontaneous talent, and containing everything that listeners have always prized in Tchaikovsky’s music. Later works would be more subtly composed; but from the beginning there is colour, drama, melody, and an unmistakable personality in this music. It also seems that, however personal the ideas, Tchaikovsky was keen not to present the symphony as any sort of self-confession, hence the titles he gave the first two movements.

‘Winter Daydreams’ is descriptive enough of the general mood of the first movement, though hardly appropriate for the symphony as a whole; nor is ‘Land of gloom, land of mists’ the appealing description for the lovely slow movement. The titles suggest that he wanted to present the whole work as a sort of Russian landscape, perhaps identifying the symphony with the tradition of Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ and ‘Scottish’ symphonies.

Mendelssohn and Schumann are indeed the closest models for its overall shape, although the music never sounds like either of these, or any other German composer: Tchaikovsky was particularly careful not to recall the procedures or gestures of Beethoven, who was such an oppressive figure for many 19th-century symphonists, and in many ways his exact opposite as both man and musician. For the clarity and effectiveness of the orchestral textures his imagination was stimulated most by the examples of Glinka and Berlioz.

From the opening of the first movement we can hear what makes Tchaikovsky such a great melodist. It is not just the invention of good tunes, although there are plenty of these in the symphony. It is also the dramatic sense that tells him how and when to vary a theme, how to give it just the right orchestral colouring, and when to decorate it with other instrumental figurations. This gives his long sonata structure variety and continuing interest. The rhythmic pacing, too, is constantly varied, with bursts of sudden energy and off-beat accents to drive the music forward. The movement ends quietly, a reminiscence of its dreamy opening fading into the distance.

The melancholy slow movement is framed by a yearning passage for muted strings, and is dominated by the long theme first given to a solo oboe, and then extended with various well-chosen combinations of instruments, culminating in its most impressive guise when it is given to the horns.

Tchaikovsky didn’t give his third or fourth movements any titles, but if he’d wanted to follow the idea of a landscape he might have given some suggestion of sunshine sparkling on crisp snow for the scherzo third movement. This is actually an orchestral transcription (with modifications) of a movement from a piano sonata he had written a year earlier. The central trio section is played at the same tempo as the scherzo, but with broader phrasing, and is the first of Tchaikovsky’s great orchestral waltzes.

The drama of the finale unfolds in various stages. The first is a melancholy, slow idea with a pronounced Russian folk character. A change to the major key and a faster tempo brings a passage which sounds as though it will provide the main theme of the movement, but there is a further quickening of the tempo before the real main idea is reached. There are times in the movement when Tchaikovsky is a little too anxious to show off his counterpoint as he combines various fragments of his folk themes, but he never loses the sense of exciting forward thrust. Towards the end, the frantic activity is interrupted by a return of the Andante lugubre, of the mists and daydreams of the first two movements, before a long, paced accelerando leads to a hugely loud coda, compensating perhaps for the unexpectedly quiet ending of the first movement.

Soon after completing his First Symphony, Tchaikovsky met the stimulating figure of Mily Balakirev, leader of the group of Russian nationalist composers based in St Petersburg that also included Rimsky-Korskov, Borodin and Mussorgsky. It was Balakirev who suggested and encouraged the composition of Romeo and Juliet (1869–70), and with the Second Symphony, composed in 1872 and performed in Moscow and St Petersburg the following spring, it seemed that the young Tchaikovsky had identified himself very closely with the nationalists’ goal of turning away from Western European models to create a specifically Russian symphonic style that would reflect the essential character of native folk music. They particularly admired the way in which Tchaikovsky found so many ingenious ways of presenting his folk-like material, inventing accompaniments and variations that preserved the original character of the melodies while showing them off from ever-varying perspectives.

The name occasionally attached to the Second Symphony, ‘Ukrainian’ (or sometimes ‘Little Russian’), is due to the use of three Ukrainian folk tunes, though Tchaikovsky’s invention is so conditioned by his background that it is often hard to distinguish between borrowed and original themes. “As regards the Russian element in general in my music… I grew up in the backwoods, saturating myself from earliest childhood with the inexplicable beauty of the characteristics of Russian folksong.” He wrote this around the time (1879-80) when he made a thorough revision of the symphony, in particular virtually re-composing the main body of the first movement, and it is this revised version that is almost always played today. Despite his particularly Russian cast of mind, however, Tchaikovsky soon found that he had to distance himself from Balakirev and his circle, finding their attitude too limited and dogmatic for his own purposes.

The symphony’s opening melody, heard on solo horn and then bassoon, is the first of the Ukrainian themes. It is treated quite extensively against changing backgrounds, providing an introduction for the unobtrusive entry of the main allegro theme, which is far shorter and more incisive. The Ukrainian theme’s reappearance in the development and coda is an emotional as well as formal device, stamping the entire movement with its character. The vigorous, clear orchestration, and especially the bright wind writing here and throughout the symphony, reflects the great influence of Berlioz on so many Russian composers.

The outer sections of the second movement are borrowed from the romantic opera Undine that Tchaikovsky had composed in 1869 and later mostly destroyed. Significantly, the opera was not on a Russian theme and (according to the composer himself) contained no specifically Russian material. The central section features a second Ukrainian tune, again presented against a background of changing accompaniments. The scherzo is notable for its irregular phrasing: instead of the expected four- and eight-bar phrases, it is grouped in phrases of three and six bars, with several teasing dislocations. The trio section is at the same quick tempo, but with a change from triple to duple time, and features a very folk-like (but apparently original) theme.

After grand phrases on the full orchestra, a tiny and repetitive Ukrainian folk-tune called Zhuravel (The Crane) emerges to provide the main theme of the finale. It is a very simple tune heard over and over again, subjected to an ever richer and more elaborate orchestral treatment with constantly changing orchestration, harmony, texture, and accompaniment. A second theme in an oddly syncopated rhythm contrasts with its squareness, but in fact the very plainness of the ‘Crane’ theme throws Tchaikovsky’s virtuosity into high relief. It was after playing through this finale to a gathering at Rimsky-Korsakov’s house in St Petersburg at Christmas 1872 that the proud composer wrote “the whole company almost tore me to pieces with rapture”.

Composed between two of his most popular works, the First Piano Concerto and Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s Third deliberately avoids the expression of any deep personal emotion but demonstrates instead the composer’s growing involvement in a wider and more objective symphonic tradition. It was written in the summer of 1875, when Tchaikovsky was free of his teaching duties at the Moscow Conservatory. Visiting the country houses of friends and relatives, he drafted the symphony in barely two weeks and then took enormous trouble over the final orchestral score. It was first performed on 19 November 1875 in Moscow, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein.

The nickname ‘Polish’, which seems to have been coined when Sir August Manns gave the symphony its first British performance at the Crystal Palace in 1899, is quite irrelevant. While the Second Symphony is known as the ‘Ukrainian’ or ‘Little Russian’ because it makes prominent use of Ukrainian folk tunes, the finale of the Third features the polonaise not as an expression of national colour but simply as a stylised dance rhythm. Tchaikovsky was consciously moving away from his brief but close involvement with the Russian national composers, finding their dogmatic approach too restricting. Instead of a heavy dependence on folk themes, which may be colourful in themselves but tend to be self-contained, Tchaikovsky is here working with material that is on the surface less distinctive, but which allows for more elaborate development and more subtle relationships between themes and movements. Even so, every detail of the symphony bears the personal stamp of a the composer who admitted that “As regards the Russian element in general in my music… I grew up in the backwoods, saturating myself from earliest childhood with the inexplicable beauty of the characteristics of Russian folksong”.

Tchaikovsky’s only symphony in a major key opens with a minor-key introduction, Tempo di marcia funebre, but this funeral march is more an indication of style and tempo than any particular expression of grief. Halting phrases in the dominant key build up suspense with a gradual acceleration towards the main body of the movement, whose three themes are treated with many inventive rhythmic shifts.

The three central movements are more lightly scored. The Alla tedesca, a German dance, is in George Balanchine’s description “another of Tchaikovsky’s marvelous waltzes, a whole ballet scene exquisitely orchestrated”. The central trio keeps the same basic pulse but sounds faster because of the shorter note-values, a stream of quaver triplets with a distinct flavour of Schumann or Mendelssohn. The wind solos that open the deeply expressive slow movement mark it as both the most Russian and the most personal music heard so far. The triplet figures that appear later can be heard as a development of those in the second movement, and are heard to very evocative effect in the coda, with its echoes of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. In the fourth movement orchestral texture becomes an essential part of the music’s effect: the strings are muted throughout, giving a spectral quality to what is essentially a single line of running semiquavers. For the opening of the trio section Tchaikovsky recycled an idea from a cantata he had hastily written three years earlier for the bicentenary of the birth of Peter the Great.

The finale mirrors the first movement as an exercise in orchestral sonority and brilliance. While for Chopin the Polonaise was a vehicle for his patriotism, proud, heroic or tragic by turns, Tchaikovsky here treats the dance as something grand and ceremonial, as he would do again two years later to convey the aristocratic world of St Petersburg at the opening of the last act of Eugene Onegin.

Andrew Huth © 2011

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