No 1: Rêverie du soir: Andante espressivo
No 2: Scherzo humoristique: Allegro vivacissimo
No 3: Feuillet d'album: Allegretto simplice
No 4: Nocturne: Andante sentimentale
No 5: Capriccioso: Allegretto simplice – Allegro vivacissimo – Tempo I
No 6: Thème original et variations: Andante non tanto – Variations 1-12
‘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.
from notes by David Fanning © 2014