TCHAIKOVSKY: None but the Lonely Heart (Murray Khouri/ Peter Breiner/ Queensland Orchestra/ Takako Nishizaki) (Naxos: 8.555332)
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Pyotr ll'yich Tchaikovsky wrote over a hundred songs, a rich repertoire that non-Russian singers have generally been tempted to avoid, concentrating attention if any, on a very small number of them. He seems to have tried his hand at this form of composition at a very early age. As a four-year-old he sets the words Our mama in St Petersburg, a collaboration with his older sister, Sasha. There were a few other attempts at song-writing during Tchaikovsky's period as a student at the School of Jurisprudence, but it was not until 1869, once his formal musical training at the St Petersburg Conservatory had been completed and he had taken up his position on the staff of the parallel institution in Moscow, that he turned his attention to the first published collection of songs, Opus 6. There were settings of verses by contemporary Russian writers, with three translations of German poems. These last, Opus 6, Nos. 2, 5 and 6, are based on original poems by Moritz Hartmann, Henrich Heine and Goethe. The first of these, Not a word, O my friend, laments the happiness that has gone, Heine's poem Warum sind dann die Rosen so Blas? (Why then are the roses so faded?) is again melancholy in mood, while the final song, a setting of a Russian version of Goethe's song for the gypsy waif Mignon, from his Wilhelm Meister novel, is among the best known of all Tchaikovsky's songs. Known in English as None but the lonely heart, this translates the Russian version of Goethe's Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only you who know what yearning is),a poem set by many other composers, from Beethoven and Schubert onwards.
1874 and the early months of 1875 brought a further collection of six songs, forming Opus 25. The first of the set, Reconciliation, is a setting of an original Russian poem by Shcherbina, while the fourth, by Lev Mey, has the Sultana Zuleika in conversation with her caged bird, both of them trapped and desiring freedom. This poem allows Tchaikovsky to indulge in orientalism, to suggest the exotic scene. The ready market for songs allowed Tchaikovsky to continue, in early 1875, with a further collection of six, to be published, as before, by Jurgenson. Opus 27 ends with another setting of verse by Mey, based on the work of the Polish patriot Mickiewicz, whose poems proved such an inspiration to Chopin. My spoilt darling is in the form of a Polish mazurka, verging on a waltz, as the singer yearns to kiss his beloved and kiss again.
A further set of six romances was put together in the same year, to be issued as Opus 28. The third of these, Why did I dream of you?, sets a poem by Mey, developing its material from a single theme to convey the lover's anguish. The fourth song, He loved me so much, has words attributed to Tchaikovsky's friend Alexey Apukhtin and the group ends with The fearful minute, with words by the composer expressing the pain of a lover as he awaits the answer of the beloved. I should like in single word, a setting of a version by Mey of Heine's Ich wollt meine Schmerzen ergössen (I would pour out my woes), was written for the Nouvelliste, a popular periodical. It was not until 1878 that Tchaikovsky had tackled another set of songs. Much had changed in his life. Perhaps to allay gossip about his homosexual proclivities, he had entered into marriage with a woman of unstable temperament whom he hardly knew and whose presence soon disgusted him. Separation followed almost at once, while Tchaikovsky, diffident in many ways and subject to depression, tried to kill himself. These events coincided with his decision to leave Moscow Conservatory, a move made possible by the intervention of Nadezhda von Meck, a rich widow, who offered him a pension, but stipulated that they should never meet. In her absence, in 1878, he was entertained at her country estate of Brailov and it was here that he wrote the songs that form Opus 38. These include Amid the din of the ball, a setting of a poem by Alexey Tolstoy, a poignant waltz-song, and Pimpinella, with words by Tchaikovsky, reproducing a popular song he had heard in Florence from the young street-singer Vittorio, a boy whose beauty of person and of voice had so impressed him. Two years later Tchaikovsky was able to offer his publisher a set of seven songs, Opus 47. The first of the set, If only I had known, with words by Alexey Tolstoy, first sketched at his sister's estate at Kamenka, was completed at Nadezhda von Meck's smaller country property at Simaki in July. The song conveys the feelings of a girl, excited at the sight of a young horseman, as he happily rides away, careless of her pain. The last of the set, Was I not a little blade of grass?, treats a poem by Ivan Surikov, who had recently died, a translation of a Ukrainian poem by Taras Shevchenko. Tchaikovsky later orchestrated this song. The collection was dedicated to the singer Alexandra Panayeva, the then object of his brother Anatoly's attentions.
In 1884 Tchaikovsky completed a further set of six romances, Opus 57. The first song of the group, Tell me, what in the shade of the branches does the spring nightingale sing, with words by Vladimir Sollogub, is dedicated to Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, who had sung the title rôle in Tchaikovsky's earlier opera Vakula the Smith. The song suggests love as the answer to all problems and has some affinity with the opera Mazeppa, running, as was Evgeny Onyegin, at this time.
1886 brought a set of twelve songs, Opus 60, dedicated, at her request, to the Empress. The sixth of the set, Frenzied Nights, is a setting of a poem by Apukhtin, with the eighth, Forgive, a setting of verse by Nikolay Nekrassov, the ninth, Night, of words by Yakov Polonsky and the tenth, Behind the window in the shadow, by the same poet. All of the poems are preoccupied with the pains and pleasures of love, in one form or another.
The present transcriptions end, chronologically, with an arrangement of a song from Tchaikovsky's Opus 63, with words by the dedicatee, the Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov. The second song, I opened the window, is an evocation of the feelings of one far away from his homeland, as he hears the song of the nightingale.