TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade for Strings / Souvenir de Florence

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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 on I y the money that at first was necessary for his career,but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demandsof him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an endin 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued anallowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come todepend.

The recently revealed version of the circumstances surroundingTchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now widely accepted. It seems that amember of the nobility had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexualrelationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. To avoid open scandal a court of honour ofTchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemned him to death, forcing him to take hisown life. His death was announced as the result of cholera, and this official version ofthe event was, until relatively recently, generally believed, in spite of elements ofimprobability.

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".

The Serenade for Strings

was written in the winter of 1880 to 1881 and dedicated to the cellist Konstantin Albrechtand general factotum of the Moscow Conservatory. The work started as either a symphony ora string quartet, before it took final shape as a suite for strings, the movements ofwhich established a coherent relationship in key and suggested symphonic structure intheir arrangement. It was first performed in Moscow in 1882 and won immediate approvalfrom Jupiter, as the composer's former teacher, Anton Rubinstein, was known. It provedpleasing to critics and public in equal measure and has continued to occupy an importantplace in string orchestra repertoire.

The first movement, described as in the form of a sonatina,opens with a slower introduction, followed by a first subject in which the composercontinues, by dividing the sections of the orchestra, to offer a rich texture, contrastedwith the livelier second subject. In the second movement Tchaikovsky reminds us of hisparticular gifts as a composer of ballet. The waltz melodies bring with them admirablycalculated contrasts of key and movement in music that never ceases to be suavely lyrical.

This is followed by an Elegie more patently Russian in inspiration, in which thecomposer's genius for melody is coupled with a remarkably deft handling of string textureand a subtle manipulation of w hat is fundamentally a simple scale. The Finale in itsopening leads gently from the key and mood of the Elegie to a Russian melody, based on adescending scale, a provenance that is emphasised, finally illuminating the origin of theinitial bars of the Serenade and the genesis of the whole work.

Tchaikovsky's ballet SleepingBeauty was given its first performance in January 1890 for Florence, meeting nogreat success. The composer left Russia in the same month, in order to work on his newPushkin opera The Queen of Spades, for whichhis brother Modest had prepared the libretto. Within 44 days the sketches were finishedand accompanied by Modest's servant Nazar he set out for Rome. By May he was in Russiaonce more and at the house he rented at Frolovskoye completed the score of the opera andset to work on his string sextet, progress on which he announced in various letters toModest, showing particular pleasure in the final fugue. He later expressed much lesssatisfaction, with his usual diffidence regarding the work as evidence of his decliningpowers.

The sextet, with the title Souvenirde Florence, descriptive of its thematic origins, was first performed inNovember 1890 and was revised by the composer at the close of the following year. Thefirst of the four movements is in rondo form, followed by a ternary form Andante. Thesong-form third movement, with its Trio, leads to a final sonata-form movement.

Tchaikovsky experienced some difficulty at first in dealing with the form of the sextet,with its two violins, two violas and two cellos in parts of balanced importance. Thesextet forms, however, a useful addition to string orchestra repertoire, allowing stillfurther strength to the lyricism of the work, contained within broadly classical outlines.

Vienna Chamber Orchestra

Founded in 1946 the Vienna Chamber Orchestra has conce
Item number 8550404
Barcode 4891030504042
Release date 12/01/1999
Category Romantic
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il'yich
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il'yich
Conductors Entremont, Philippe
Entremont, Philippe
Orchestras Vienna Chamber Orchestra
Vienna Chamber Orchestra
Producers Kopernicky, Karol
Kopernicky, Karol
Disc: 1
Souvenir de Florence, D minor, Op. 70
1 Pezzo in forma di Sonatina
2 Waltzer
3 Elegie
4 Finale (Tema Russo)
5 Allegro con spirito
6 Adagio cantabile
7 Allegretto moderato
8 Allegro vivace
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