Hyperion Records

Sinfonietta for string orchestra
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Composed in 1953, the Sinfonietta for String Orchestra is the culmination of Tchaikovsky’s first compositional period, which also includes his C minor First Symphony, his opera The Star, and a number of works either based on folk material or composed for children (as was much Soviet music in the oppressive climate from 1948 until the death of Stalin). ‘Sinfonietta’ is an accurate title for a work whose four movements are laid out on traditional lines but lack the concentration, surface tensions and overall dramatic trajectory that would generally be expected of a Soviet symphony.

The first movement (Sonatina) opens with a long-limbed viola theme of clearly Shostakovichian stamp (it recalls one of the opening ideas of Shostakovich’s Fifth Quartet, composed the previous year but still awaiting its premiere). This theme passes to the other sections of the string orchestra before giving place to a metrically fluid contrasting chordal idea, initially pizzicato. The two ideas reappear in the concise development and in the even more concise recapitulation, and the movement is rounded off with a reflective coda. Like many of the waltzes in Shostakovich’s string quartets, Tchaikovsky’s second movement is fast-moving and muted in timbre; but unlike his teacher’s, this one is neither frantic nor particularly ill-at-ease. Both the opening violin tune and the contrasting staccato theme return at length on the cellos, the staccato idea gaining a new springy accompaniment. The model for the slow movement’s long-drawn, harmonically elusive theme is again to be found in Shostakovich’s early quartets. Only the entry of the lower strings confirms that the key is B flat major. When this idea passes to the violas the tempo quickens and the harmony darkens; and there is a further quickening for a pattering variation with an espressivo descant for first violins. The pattering motion then accompanies the return of the theme on the cellos as the movement moves towards its consoling close. The playful Rondo manages the delicate aesthetic balancing-act of a non-conflictual yet never trivial finale.

from notes by David Fanning © 2004

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