TCHAIKOVSKY, B.: Piano Concerto / Clarinet Concerto / Signs of the Zodiac

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Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996)

Piano Concerto Clarinet Concerto Signs of the Zodiac

Widely respected in Russia and praised by figures suchas Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich, BorisTchaikovsky amassed a formidable body of works,including four symphonies, four instrumental concertos,six string quartets, a variety of chamber and orchestralmusic for various ensembles, piano and vocal music,and an abundance of music for the cinema.

Tchaikovsky received his musical training at theMoscow Conservatory in the years following WorldWar II. He received his diploma in 1949, having studiedwith the leading instrumental composers of the time,Shostakovich, Nikolay Myaskovsky, and VissarionShebalin, bravely refusing to take part in the officialcondemnation of the much-abused Shostakovich.

Tchaikovsky's works from the 1940s and 1950s alreadydisplay a pronounced gift for melody; his earliestcompositions reflect an individual style.

The cultural thaw of the 1960s opened many doorsfor Soviet composers in an emerging freer creativeenvironment. While some composers were drawn toavant-garde trends developed in the West, Tchaikovsky,quite independently, began to explore a bolder musicallanguage of his own. Yet the lyricism that lies at thebase of his musical thinking was undergoing profoundmetamorphosis. A fresh approach to composition wasevolving whereby thematic development takes place asa kind of \mosaic" of accentuated, declamatoryutterances. The striking rigidity of these utterances, aTchaikovsky hallmark, and their strong rhythmiccharacteristics are related to similar aspects found inRussian folk-music. They somehow impart to his musica distinctly Russian sound while completely avoidingany traces of an overt folk influence. A correspondingincrease in the level of dissonance and the use of bolderorchestral colours are also to be noted. What in factTchaikovsky had created was a highly personal,thoroughly up-to-date musical language capable, as willbe apparent, of an astonishingly wide range ofexpression. Tchaikovsky's new style opened up a worldof formal exploration and expressivity, mostly in therealm of abstract instrumental music. Technicalchallenges of one sort or another fascinated him and ledto an ever-fresh source of inspiration. The works on thepresent disc offer a varied cross-section of his work.

In the Piano Concerto rhythm is used as thespringboard from which all musical ideas and theirmanner of development derive. In the outer movements,rhythm also forms the principal structuring device. Eachof the concerto's ideas or 'rhythmotifs' derives itsidentity from one or more, often short, strongly accentedpatterns. These ideas are treated lyrically and notwithout a significant bravura element that displaysTchaikovsky's mastery of the instrument. The firstmovement is a lively toccata that is dominated by asingle, monolithic rhythmic idea: a tenacious ostinato ofthrobbing eighth notes (quavers), grouped eight to a bar,that are hammered out incessantly. In contrast, thesecond movement is both tender and sublime. Thehusky tones of the solo double bass introduce a gentlyswaying idea that provides a foil for the main themestated on the piano. The movement is cast in ABABform where the B sections feature a theme based on aninverted version of the mordent figure found in the Asections. The music returns to the soft strains of theinitial 'A' material, but now the piano line is ever sosweetly adorned by the violins, which sing in theuppermost registers the theme originally given to thesolo double bass. A momentary pause marks the returnof the inverted theme (the final B section) where thepiano, in spare single-notes, continues to render theexquisitely sensitive lyricism as it climbs to higher andhigher registers, eventually vanishing magically off theupper end of the keyboard. In the third movementTchaikovsky delivers a compact sonata form in aframework of uniformly paced accents. The first themeis presented at the outset in a lively galumphing rhythmon the piano. The second theme, pensively undulating ina stepwise fashion, is heard on piano and strings and isadorned by rapid oscillations of a perfect fourth,punctuated by a two-note tattoo on the bass drum. At theclimax all the ideas - galumphing theme, undulatingtheme, tattoo, perfect fourth - rally together in atexturally transparent, splendid moment of synthesis.

The fourth movement, an exuberant rondo, is built fromthree themes of vividly contrasting rhythms: a skippingtheme heard at the outset on French horn, then piano; asyncopated theme introduced and most often heard onFrench horn; and chasing immediately after it and attimes overlapping it, another piano-dominated themethat pays playful homage to Baroque polyphony. Theskipping theme and the 'Baroque' theme each receiveextended pianistic treatment in their subsequentreappearances in the movement. The first theme is attimes reduced to pure skeletal rhythm - in one passage,to a set of lively exchanges between snare drum and bassdrum. The fifth and final movement is based on a shortidea with a limping gait that is taken through its paceswith a wealth of lyrical possibilities. Like the openingmovement, its "monorhythmic" construction offers yetanother example of Tchaikovsky's remarkable ability totake the simplest rhythmic formula and from it build adramatic arc of rich and ingratiating emotion.

Cast in three movements, the modest proportions ofTchaikovsky's Clarinet Concerto not only covercolourful ground but offer plenty of virtuosic opportunityfor the soloist. Its melodic style, light scoring (for soloclarinet, strings, three trumpets and timpani) and thesymmetries imposed by its sectional repeats establish itsaffinities with eighteenth-century Baroque and Classicalmodels. From the opening bars of the Moderato theclarinet sings straight from the heart. Its graceful melodyfloats above a relaxed pattern of quarter notes (crotchets)in the strings in steadily measured triple time. In theshort second movement, Vivace, melodic boundaries areagain shunned as the clarinet alternates with the stringsin weaving a rousing wall-to-wall ribbon of sixteenthnotes (semiquavers) with syncopated accompaniment.

This leads to the final Allegro whose main theme,introduced by the clarinet, is built out of leaping intervals(rising and falling thirds, descending sixths andsevenths) that contrast with the scalewise material thatsurrounds it. The improvisatory interplay of these ideasgives this final rondo a rather jazzy character.

Perhaps the most important vocal work byTchaikovsky is the cantata Signs of the Zodiac. Scoredfor solo soprano, strings and harpsichord, it is a deeplyexpressive setting that finds Tchaikovsky at the heightof his lyrical powers. The work takes one verse eachfrom four poets who collectively span two centuries ofRussian literature. The poems embrace the commonthemes of human mortality, eternity, and regenerationand represent a wide variety of literary styles and framesof reference. They take us from the lyric, philosophicalverses of Fyodor Tyutchev (1803 - 1873), to those of theSymbolist Alexander Blok (1880-1921) to the moremodern styles of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) andmost recently, Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958). Theorder of the verses in the cantata preserves this historicaltime line. In doing so, a link of human experiencethrough the ages is established, as is a sense of timelesscontinuity of past, present and future, rather like theconstellations of stars in the zodiac itself.

The instrumental Prelude that opens the work drawsupon all the musical material that will appear in thefollowing songs. The ideas flow into each other,fantasia-like, in the same order as they will appear in thefour settings, an arrangement that sustains the cantata'soverall organization of themes and emotional states.

When th
Disc: 1
Signs of the Zodiac: II. - V.
1 I. —
2 II. —
3 III. —
4 IV. —
5 V. —
6 I. Moderato
7 II. Vivace
8 III. Allegro
9 I. Prelude
10 II. Silentium!
11 III. Far Out
12 IV. Cross O' Four Road
13 V. Signs of the Zodiac
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