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Hyperion Records

CDA68028 - Tchaikovsky: The seasons
Sunset through Russian Trees (1989) by Liz Wright (b1950)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: August 2013
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: June 2014
Total duration: 75 minutes 28 seconds

'The Seasons … are perhaps the most immediately attractive of Tchaikovsky's piano works. Selections of them regularly appear in recitals and on disc, but for his first release on Hyperion Pavel Kolesnikov has opted to play all 12, alongside the Six morceaux Op 19, which was composed three years earlier. In 2012, Kolesnikov took first prize in the Honens piano competition in Canada, and on the evidence of his effortlessly refined playing here, he was a worthy winner … a charming, rewarding disc' (The Guardian) » More

'This is Tchaikovsky at his best, in music of relatively short duration and of very wide-ranging character … the young Siberian-born Pavel Kolesnikov … shows an extra degree of poetry and is … recorded, under the watchful eye (and ear) of possibly the greatest living classical record producer' (International Record Review) » More

'Kolesnikov emphasises the delicacy and intimacy of these infrequently played pieces … the 12 short pieces of The Seasons are Tchaikovsky’s 'songs without words', although entirely pianistic, and it is wonderful to hear a young Russian avoiding the barnstorming style of so many contemporaries. He plays the 'Six Pieces' with affection and élan' (The Sunday Times) » More

'These charming, inventive works—the pensive “June,” the waltzing “December”—are not heard often in the concert hall. That the impressive young Siberian-born pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, a 2012 laureate of the Honens Prize, loves this suite comes through in his elegant playing on this welcome recording, which includes Tchaikovsky’s lovely “Six Morceaux"' (The New York Times)

The seasons
No 12 December, 'Christmas': Tempo di valse  [4'16] FREE DOWNLOAD TRACK

Pavel Kolesnikov became Laureate of the Honens Prize for Piano in 2012 and gave his Wigmore Hall debut at the beginning of 2013. In his five-star review for The Daily Telegraph, John Allison praised the Russian-born, London-based artist for his recital’s ‘intelligent programming and outstanding pianism … one of the most memorable of such occasions London has witnessed’.

Hyperion is delighted to present this brilliant young artist in an album of Tchaikovsky’s Les saisons and Six morceaux.

Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and ballets are perhaps the most popular and frequently performed in the entire canon—compared to them his piano music is little-known. It is generally of a much more intimate nature than that of his compatriots, and has more in common with the emotional subtleties—and melodic beauties—of Schumann’s music.

The seasons is a cycle of twelve pieces, taking the listener through the months of the year. Each piece also has an atmospheric epigraph. The Six morceaux, Op 19, conclude with the ‘Thème original et variations’, which is often performed alone as a concert piece, but is particularly satisfying in context, as recorded here.

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Imagine that you are living in the Russian capital city of St Petersburg in 1876. As so often in that vast unmanageable land, it is an era of political and intellectual ferment. Fifteen years on from the Emancipation of the Serfs, the country’s tortured past and uncertain future remain hot topics for discussion in cultured circles and the press. Radical concepts, with new catch-words such as Populism and Nihilism, are in the air. Tsar Alexander II, who had driven through the Emancipation as part of a wide-ranging programme of reform in the aftermath of the disastrous Crimean War, has already survived two assassination attempts. It would be the fourth one in 1881, at the hands of Revolutionaries who styled themselves ‘The People’s Will’, that would finally carry him off. This would also mark the beginning of the end for the Romanov dynasty, which would attempt to clamp down on dissent but only succeed in fuelling the engines of discontent that eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

For the time being, however, it was reasonable to suppose that Russia would continue gradually to modernize and that its growing middle class would continue to acquire the bourgeois habits of the West—such as listening to classical music and playing the piano and singing at home. If you belonged to that class, you might well have been a subscriber to the monthly musical-theatrical journal Nuvellist (the title is borrowed from the French for short-story writer). And if you were, then you would have found printed in your January 1876 issue the first of a cycle of twelve pieces commissioned from Tchaikovsky by the editor of the journal, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard (the rest appeared in successive issues that year). They are known collectively as The seasons, or, less confusingly, as The months (the original Russian, Vremena goda, certainly translates as ‘seasons’, however). At the end of the year, Bernard published all twelve as a set.

Each piece was given a subtitle and an accompanying verse. In the case of January the supplementary title was ‘By the fireside’ and the verse was from Pushkin. It is not entirely clear what input Tchaikovsky had in the choice of texts (he seems to have had a say in those for Nos 1 and 4), but the titles were certainly Bernard’s, as the composer’s letter of 24 November 1875 accepting the commission attests. Still, Bernard or Tchaikovsky, whichever it was, did match words to music—or music to words—with much sensitivity, and since the titles are already highly suggestive of his beloved Schumann, there is no reason to think that Tchaikovsky was in any way opposed to them. And while he may have expressed himself rather dismissively about the project as a whole, there is nothing in the music to suggest anything slapdash. Indeed he was evidently so fond of the middle section of January that he built Tatyana’s letter scene around it while composing his operatic masterpiece Yevgeny Onegin in 1877.

The pieces themselves are perfectly matched to the market of amateurs who might not command massive techniques but who were prepared to persevere and whose sensitivities would identify readily with the moods of the music. Such a description matches Tchaikovsky’s own pianistic accomplishments fairly precisely. He was a trained and competent pianist, numbering Anton Rubinstein among his teachers, but not an outstanding one.

The majority of the pieces are intimate. February is an example of the more extrovert exceptions. It bears the highly appropriate title of ‘Carnival’—in Russian specifically Maslenitsa, the Shrovetide fair that also provides the setting for Stravinsky’s Petrushka—and the music evokes bustling crowds, competitive attractions, and accordions on street-corners.

For March we are back to a more private expressive world. The score is headed ‘The lark’s song’, and there are some suggestions of birdsong, which invite a pecking, staccato touch. April is subtitled ‘The snowdrop’ and comes with the tantalizing marking Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato. The next two pieces are also on the slow side. May evokes the joyfulness as well as the beauty of the ‘White nights of May’ in St Petersburg, and June—one of the most famous in the set—is entitled ‘Barcarolle’: somewhat curiously so, because it is only the undulating middle section that in any way evokes Venetian gondolas. July’s ‘Reaper’s song’ is another plein air tableau, contrasting communal, or at least outdoor, activity with the more inward tone of the previous four movements.

Tchaikovsky’s technical demands move up a grade or two for the second half of the set. August follows July in placing a high premium on keyboard facility. This is a ‘Harvest’, nominally, but to the accompaniment of a Mendelssohnian scherzo, as though all concerned are anxious to bring in the corn before the arrival of September rains. Not the least of its challenges is to achieve a wide range of colour within a piano dynamic. September, ‘The hunt’, follows, accompanied by another verse from Pushkin, whose invitations to horn calls are gratefully taken up in the music. Opportunities for poetic reverie return in October, the ‘Autumn song’, where the doloroso marking is merely a confirmation of the sighs of disillusionment and the surges of hope that leap from the page. November, headed ‘Troika’ (the three-horsed Russian sleigh), is a movement Rachmaninov loved to play, and his scintillating, highly personal interpretation is one that has influenced many performers, especially Russians. Finally December, entitled ‘Christmas’, comes with a verse from Vasily Zhukovsky describing girls taking off their slippers at the gate, in line with a local fortune-telling tradition. For this Tchaikovsky composes one of his most unassuming, yet engaging, waltzes.

The Six morceaux, Op 19, were commissioned by Tchaikovsky’s publisher Pyotr Yurgenson (Jurgenson), a man of immense energy who by the time of his death in 1904 had established a considerable empire in the Russian music-publishing world, buying up at least seventeen smaller firms, among them that of Nikolay Bernard in 1885. The pieces were composed immediately after the symphonic fantasia after Shakespeare, The Tempest, in October and November 1873. Tchaikovsky was already an experienced composer for the piano; eight of his earlier opuses consist of piano music, and several of his titles for the Op 19 pieces have precedents there, as they do in the work of Robert Schumann, who stands as godfather to the set as a whole.

‘Rêverie du soir’ instantly captures the moods of languor, longing and resignation, which, thanks to countless poems, songs and films, are thought of as archetypal for the Russian soul. The middle section’s major mode promises more activity, but the tempo is explicitly marked to be the same, and sighing articulations ensure that there is still a watery film over the eyes. The fleetness and dexterity required by the ‘Scherzo humoristique’ are tempered by grazioso markings that remind us of the affinities of Tchaikovsky’s expressive world with the ballet. The same is true of the chimes at the heart of the slower central section, which would not be out place in The Nutcracker.

More within the reach of amateurs is the ‘Feuillet d’album’ (‘Album leaf’), marked Allegretto simplice, which seems to come straight from a world of domestic story-telling. Andante sentimentale may be the marking for the ‘Nocturne’; but this too is more of a personal confession than an overt, public declaration, and the tone feels more warm-hearted than self-pitying. The ‘Nocturne’ was the most popular of the collection in its day, and in 1888 Tchaikovsky himself made a transcription of it for cello and orchestra.

The penultimate piece starts intimately and even-temperedly, somewhat curiously for an idea that was supposed to be part of a symphony (never realized as such). Just as it seems to be sinking into slumber, however, a bustling Allegro vivacissimo middle section shows that the ‘Capriccioso’ title is not accidental. The return to intimacy is not fundamentally disturbed by the fuller texturing of the material.

Dedicated to Hermann Laroche, music critic and essayist, and one of Tchaikovsky’s staunchest public supporters, the concluding ‘Thème original et variations’ is often heard as a self-sufficient concert piece, but it also makes a satisfying conclusion to the opus as a whole. The unassuming lyrical theme spawns variations that unfold its inner secrets at the same time as unobtrusively referring back to the textures and moods of the other pieces in the collection. The penultimate variation is marked Alla Schumann, perhaps because of its passing resemblance to the finale of Schumann’s Études symphoniques. However, there is little of the vaulting ambition of that work elsewhere in the variations. Both in the characters of each variation and in their succession—from the amorous No 5 to the mock-academic fugato in No 6, to the quasi-chorale of No 7, the boulder-tossing of No 8 and the Alla mazurka No 9—there is more playfulness and grace than anything profound or soul-searching. Even so, the overall affinity with Schumann, in terms of both piano-writing and emotional tenor, remains as unmistakable here as it is in The seasons.

David Fanning © 2014

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