TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Oxana Yablonskaya) (Naxos: 8.553330)
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The Composer: Peter Il'yich Tchaikovsky, born on May 7, 1840, is the most popular composer Russia has produced, yet he did not take music seriously until he was 22, previously destined to be a government civil servant. He entered the newly founded St. Petersburg Conservatory to study composition under Anton Rubinstein. His musical progress was rapid and distinguished, and he followed these studies with employment teaching at the Moscow Conservatoire.
He was a manic depressive who tried to sublimate his homosexuality with a hopeless marriage. Even modest failures in the reception of his music plunged him into deep turmoil, and though much of his vast output is now in the standard repertoire, there is almost as much that is still rarely performed.
Fortunately a rich widow, who he was never to meet, provided the moral and financial support to convince him that he should dedicate his life to composition. His First Symphony had already put him in confusion, having been rejected by Anton Rubinstein, though it was reasonably well received at its first performance. The Piano Concerto was also savaged by Nikolai Rubinstein, the brother of Anton, who condemned it as unplayable, yet it was to become his most popular work. That really was the story of his life, with his music both adored and vilified.
A further example of his mixed success comes in the field of opera, where Eugene Onegin became part of the standard repertoire, yet he wrote 10 operas, most of which are now - and not without justification - totally forgotten.
Much of the middle period of his life embraced Russian nationalism, and involved the use of folk music. This finally flourished in his Second Symphony, the 'Little Russian'.
Though he travelled widely, including a visit to North America, with honours bestowed on him, he lived most of his life in his homeland, where, in addition to his compositions, he was a respected conductor.
That he committed suicide at the age of 53 is now no longer in doubt - probably to avoid a homosexual scandal - though at the time he was said to have died from cholera.
The Music: Although he composed for the piano throughout his creative life, much of his output was in the genre of salon music, and was intended for the lucrative market of the gifted amateur. He was strangely uneasy writing for the solo instrument on a larger scale. The most virtuosic work on this disc, outside of the composer's transcription of Marche Slave, is the short Dumka. It was conceived as a picture full of animation that utilised the popular dance rhythm.
The wistful and gentle Romance in F minor, is one of Tchaikovsky's best-know piano pieces, and often appeared in those books of 'Best Loved Piano Melodies', which formed the staple diet of every young pianist earlier this century. The Two Pieces were written in 1871 and are of infinite charm, with a calm and rhapsodic opening Nocturne, and a Humoresque that became one of his best known works in many orchestral transcriptions.
The Six Pieces date from 1873 and were dedicated to close friends and students of the composer. The fourth movement, Nocturne in C sharp minor, was also to feature among the composer's best loved works. The concluding section is a Theme and Variations, and shows the composer at his most assured. The three song transcriptions include, 'The Cradle Song', 'O Sing that Song' (to English words by Felicia Hemans), and 'Thy radiant image'.
Tchaikovsky's best-known march composition, the Marche Slave, was composed in honour of the Serbian heroes of the Turco-Serbian War and first performed in 1876. The composition is based largely on the old Russian anthem, God Save the Tsar, together with folk-tunes of Slavonic and Serbian origin. Though others were asked for transcriptions, Tchaikovsky chose to create his own piano version of the work, and though it was published, it has never previously been recorded. Strangely Tchaikovsky decided to remove all hints of virtuosity, and produced a rather austere transcription, giving the bare bones of the orchestral score. Nevertheless it proves difficult for the soloist, the work falling awkwardly under the fingers. Maybe the success of the orchestral score has deterred pianists from performing the work.
>The Performer: Born in Russia, Oxana Yablonskaya is now resident in the United States, where she has become one of the leading concert pianists, and one of the most celebrated teachers of the new generation of great pianists. The Gramophone described her as "a remarkable virtuoso".
She is making a number of CDs for the Naxos label, and already released is a recording of music by Khachaturian, the BBC Music Magazine writing: "She approaches these dazzling, exciting works with passion and sensitivity".