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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from APR5662
Recording details: January 1947
Moscow, Russia
Release date: November 2007
Total duration: 37 minutes 14 seconds

The seasons, Op 37b
composer
1876; commissioned by the magazine Nuvellist; sometimes called The months

No 8 August, 'Harvest': Allegro vivace  [3'15]  recorded 1947

Other recordings available for download
Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)   June 2014 Release
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

from notes by David Fanning © 2014


Other albums featuring this work
'Tchaikovsky: The seasons' (CDA68028)
Tchaikovsky: The seasons
CDA68028  June 2014 Release  
'Lev Oborin – Beethoven, Chopin & Liszt' (APR5668)
Lev Oborin – Beethoven, Chopin & Liszt

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