TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 (Adrian Leaper/ Beata Jankowska/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550488)
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 17 "Little Russian"
Symphony No.4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popularof all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions inits melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovskythan this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimesseems to be an excess of popular attention.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a miningengineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home,under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was apupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, completing his course there in1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed hisabilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that he would, like hiscontemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondaryoccupation, while following another career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundationof the new Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him tostudy there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member ofthe staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. Hecontinued there for some ten years, before financial assistance from a rich widow,Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely tocomposition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to aself-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability,and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. Hishomosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupledwith physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous break-down.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still leftpractical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda vonMeck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, butalso the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands ofhim, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an end in1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowancethat was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
The story of Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 isnow generally known. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain tothe Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. Toavoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemnedhim to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death was announced as the result ofcholera, and this official version of the event was, until relatively recently, generallyaccepted.
As a composer Tchaikovsky represented a happy synthesis of theWest European or German school of composition, represented in Russia by his teacher AntonRubinstein, and the Russian nationalists, led by the impossibly aggressive Balakirev. FromRubinstein Tchaikovsky learned his technique, while Balakirev attempted time and again tobully him into compliance with his own ideals. To the nationalists Tchaikovsky may haveseemed relatively foreign. His work, after all, lacked the primitive crudity thatsometimes marked their compositions. Nevertheless acceptance abroad was not universal.
Hanslick, in Vienna, could deplore the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the violinconcerto and other works, while welcoming the absence of any apparent Russian element inthe last of the six symphonies. In England and America there had been a heartier welcome,and in the latter country he had been received with an enthusiasm that exceeded even thatat home. In his diary of the American concert tour of 1891 he remarked on this and on thecurious habit of American critics, who tended to concentrate their attention on theappearance and posture of a conductor, rather than on the music itself. At the age of 51he was described in the American press as "a tall, gray, interesting man, well on tosixty".
In 1872 Tchaikovsky spent part of the summer at Kamenka at thehouse of his elder sister Sasha, a welcome respite from his now irksome duties at theMoscow Conservatory, an institution threatened by a chronic shortage of money. Julybrought a visit to Kiev, to the house of his friend Kondratyev at Nizy and to theconsumptive Shilovsky at Usovo, during the course of which he nearly lost the sketches ofa second symphony, which he had started at Kamenka. Known as The Little Russian, thesymphony was completed by the end of the year and Tchaikovsky was able to play through theFinale at the Rimsky-Korsakovs in St. Petersburg at Christmas. The work received itsfirst performance in Moscow in February 1873, to be repeated in April and to be played inSt. Petersburg in March, to the approval of the group of nationalist composers, whoseprinciples it seemed to endorse. The whole work was extensively revised by the composer in1880.
The first movement was completely rewritten by Tchaikovsky, tohis own satisfaction but not always to that of later critics. The Andante sostenutoopening offers a folk-tune from the Ukraine, a region known as Little Russia. The melodyis introduced by the horn and echoed by the bassoon, later to be taken over fragmentarilyby other instruments. The exposition of the movement, marked Allegro vivo, is succinctlyexpressed, with the initial folk-song re-appearing in the development, and making a returnin conclusion.
Tchaikovsky claimed only to have rescored the second movement,which had been retrieved from a Wedding March in the third act of his rejected opera Undine. In structure it is in three principalsections, its central portion a Ukrainian folk-song, while the outer framework is built ina similar form, the march itself enclosing a contrasting passage.
The Scherzo, allegedly shortened and rescored, shows theinfluence of Borodins First Symphony
in its rhythmic variety. It has a contrasting Trio, opened by oboes, clarinets, bassoonsand horns, to be joined by the violins in a countermelody, in a movement that demonstratesagain the composer's early mastery of orchestral colour.
The Finale opens in grandiose style, leading to anotherUkrainian folk-song, The Crane, similar incontour to the Promenade theme used by Mussorgsky in his Pictures at an Exhibition. This melody providesmaterial for both introduction and first subject, while the second subject offers a numberof harmonic ambiguities with an attractively lop-sided dance-rhythm. The centraldevelopment makes full use of the two themes, with a recapitulation that takes us intounexpected keys before the C major conclusion.
The fourth of Tchaikovsky's six symphonies was completed inearly January, 1878, and given its first performance in Moscow six weeks later. In May andearly June 1877 he had completed sketches of the whole symphony. On 1st June he had methis future wife for the first time and had proposed to her a few days later. Meanwhile hewas occupied too with the composition of his opera EugeneOnegin. On 18th July he married: by 7th August he had left for hisbrother-in-l