TCHAIKOVSKY, B.: Symphony No. 1 / The Murmuring Forest Suite / After the Ball Suite
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Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996)
Symphony No. 1 • Suite: The Murmuring Forest • Suite: After the Ball
In a career that spanned the last half of the twentieth Century, the composer Boris Tchaikovsky towered high among his Soviet contemporaries. His work received unalloyed praise from the most prominent musical figures, Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Kondrashin, Barshai, and Fedoseyev, and was represented on more than twenty Melodiya LPs, few of which circulated outside the Soviet Union. In the West, however, where musical tastes favoured the avant garde, his music was largely overlooked. That climate of opinion has been rapidly changing. As more of his work is recorded on CD, Boris Tchaikovsky is becoming widely recognised as one of the most important Russian composers of our time.
As both standard-bearer and innovator, Tchaikovsky arguably did more to enrich the tradition of Russian instrumental music than anyone else of his generation. He was trained at the Moscow Conservatory during the 1940s under Vissarion Shebalin, Shostakovich, and Nikolay Myaskovsky. His works from the 1950s, such as the celebrated Sinfonietta for Strings (1953), show that he was a traditionalist with forward-looking sensibilities. An extensive revamping of his style in the 1960s, coincident with the freer creative environment then emerging in the Soviet Union, led his music in fresh directions. Unlike the alienating rhetoric and the host of "isms" adopted by many of his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky's mature style maintained strong connections with its Russian roots. With its brittle lyricism, pronounced rhythmic features, and an expanded harmonic palette that never completely abandons tonality, the new style allowed him to take on a broad and at times exotic array of formal challenges. The result was a highly innovative, richly expressive body of work that appealed to a wide concert-going public.
Tchaikovsky's principal works include four symphonies, four concertos, various other works for orchestra, a chamber symphony, six string quartets, and a quantity of other chamber music. If the list seems short, the works themselves boast an engaging variety of formal explorations. His most daring compositions include a bravura Cello Concerto (1964) that challenges the notion of thematic identity, a single-movement Violin Concerto (1969) that shuns the time-honoured musical practice of repetition, and a five-movement Piano Concerto (1971) all of whose elements derive from primitive rhythmic patterns. His orchestral compositions, such as his Theme and Eight Variations (1973) and the tone-poems Wind of Siberia and Juvenile (both of 1984), reveal a wealth of lyrical invention. His symphonies embrace an ever-expanding quest for innovation within traditional forms. To briefly summarise, in the First Symphony (1947) matters of thematic organization receive individual treatment; the Second Symphony (1967) incorporates musical quotations from the classics as points of structural departure; the Third Symphony, "Sebastopol", (1980) is conceived as a single monumental movement; and his Symphony with Harp (1993) explores a unique set of timbral possibilities.
The present disc draws upon Tchaikovsky's earliest period with three works written between 1947 and 1953, around the time of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1949. The earliest of these is the First Symphony, whose originality so impressed Shostakovich that he brought the work to the attention of the noted conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, who readily agreed to programme it, but what should have been an auspicious première by a promising young composer never materialised. Stalin's notorious campaign against Soviet composers in 1948 brought virtually all musical creativity to a halt. Specifically targeted was Shostakovich, whose students, including Tchaikovsky, were branded as "contaminated". The first performance of the Symphony, as happened with a number of contemporaneous works by Shostakovich, was tabled. Tchaikovsky's symphony was given its première to much acclaim on 7 February 1962 with Kirill Kondrashin leading the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. This, the first recording of the Symphony, appears nearly sixty years after its composition.
It is not hard to see why Tchaikovsky's First Symphony made such a strong impression on Shostakovich. As ambitious in emotional scope as it is in its overall design, the work already finds the composer thinking globally in terms of musical architecture. While the influence of Shostakovich is evident in its brilliant orchestration, Tchaikovsky's symphony, like Shostakovich's own first attempt at the form, strongly proclaims its own stylistic ground.
The depth and richness of Tchaikovsky's musical thinking are evident in the opening Moderato. The movement is cast in sonata form and generously supplies no less than half a dozen themes in its exposition. A majestic theme with major-minor colorations opens the work, followed by a second phrase, rising and falling scalewise, introducing a "motto", that will establish itself, in various guises, as a signal presence throughout this work, providing a link within and across each of its four movements. A more extended second thematic group starts with a repeated three-note figure that emerges forcefully in the woodwinds. This idea is expanded and leads to a number of other themes: another three-note figure descending stepwise with timpani punctuation; thematic material in dotted rhythm that echoes the first two notes — short-long — of the opening theme of the first group; and later a short five-note tattoo, a time-compressed version of the motto theme. The clarity and individual character of each of these ideas belies the subtle ties that unite them and the movement into an organic whole. A remarkable synthesis follows in the development section where this plethora of themes is knit together with gripping logic and cumulative drama. The recapitulation begins with a climactic restatement of the opening theme and the movement ends quietly. The second movement, Allegro marcato, comprises a fantastic Russian Scherzo. Here three rhythmically charged themes gleefully parley with each other on either side of a broadly lyrical central section scored for strings. Notice in the outer sections the appearances of the motto theme in the respective solos for oboe, clarinet, and piccolo. In the Largo, cast in ABAB form, the motto appears everywhere, as the initial flourish (in inverted form) and as the ever-present countermelody to the themes in both A and B sections. When the A section returns, a climactic statement of the first theme on solo French horn leads to a short reprise of the tender second theme before the movement closes quietly. Tchaikovsky's inexhaustible powers of invention are again attested to in the theme and set of variations of the final Allegretto. The theme, introduced by the solo clarinet, consists of four distinct phrases that offer plenty of lyrical groundwork: first a held note that skips up an octave; then two utterances of the motto; a descending sequence of triplets; and finally a series of three note figures that close the phrase. The composer's high-spirited variations take the idea through its colourful paces while offering genuine symphonic development. The treatment leads to a number of passages of heightened drama – including a fugal variatio