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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Music, Vol. 1
Piano Music Volume 1
Piano works composed over a period of twenty-six years (1867-1893) comprise a by no means insignificant part of Tchaikovsky's chamber music. True, his compositions for the piano cannot claim a leading place in his musical legacy, nevertheless against the background of the post-Lisztian piano literature of Western Europe, Tchaikovsky's works for the piano are distinguished by their variety and originality. Tchaikovsky was an excellent pianist from his youth. When he graduated from law school in 1859 he played Liszt's extremely difficult fantasia on theme's from Lucia di Lammennoor, and when the Moscow Conservatory opened in 1866 he gave a brilliant performance of the overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila by Glinka in a piano transcription. His personal tastes in piano music caused Tchaikovsky to single out Robert Schumann as his favorite composer for the piano. Schumann's restless lyricism, the range of his ideas and even his exposition with its ingenious rhythms exercised a tremendous influence of Tchaikovsky. Considerable too was the influence of Chopin. On the other hand, he was indifferent to Liszt's radical reforms in piano execution, subtle, dazzling virtuosity and effervescence of design, although he had the greatest respect for Liszt as a composer. It is not difficult to trace these diverse influences in Tchaikovsky's music for the piano but, as always, they were transmuted in the crucible of his genius and bore the unmistakable stamp of his creative individuality. It is this individuality that makes Tchaikovsky's piano compositions so difficult to perform: the pianist must project himself into the images expressed in the music before he can reveal the profound essence that is sometimes concealed behind some simple salon dance or elegant concert showpiece.
Tchaikovsky composed only two works he labelled "Sonata" and both were for solo piano. The first, in C sharp minor, Opus 80, was one of his earliest works of any kind, composed in 1865. Tchaikovsky considered this sonata a student work and withheld it from publication. The rather late opus number was affixed at the time of the posthumous publication in 1900. Tchaikovsky's second sonata was begun on 13th March, 1878, a few days before he started work on his celebrated Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky completed the work on 7th August of that year and the work was first performed in Moscow by Nikolay Rubinstein on 2nd November, 1879.
The Grand Sonata (at it is sometimes known) is in G major and in four movements. The work is unusually rich in musical ideas. The first movement is built up of measured march rhythms and impassioned recitatives, giving the impression of a greatly augmented introduction confined within the sonata framework. The march movement in three-time changes to a recitative theme. Elements of improvisation and drama merge in the solemn phrases of musical oratory. A passionate restless second theme is contrasted to the calm serenity of the concluding part. The solemn development is crowned by a tense march in three-time. The same march motif predominates in the brilliant coda. The second movement, marked Andante, is extremely poetic. Its main theme, touched by a sorrowful lyricism, is set off by a number of whimsical episodes and is somewhat reminiscent of Schumann. The light, unforced Scherzo might well belong to a Schumann Novellette. The finale, however, is dominated, like the first movement, by the composer's preoccupation with constructing a large-scale, elaborate discourse, so that the beautiful first subject is lost in the dense tangle of the piano writing, while the second subject is clogged with rhetoric. Tchaikovsky nonetheless manages to exploit his material with consummate skill, and the Sonata in G Major, Opus 37 closes on an orchestrally majestic tone.
On 30th August, 1882, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest:
My dearest Modichka!
There is nothing extraordinary happening here. I lead such an orderly life that it would be impossible to say which day is which. In the mornings, tea, then a newspaper; then a walk round the disgusting 'big garden' and work until dinner time. After dinner another walk round the big garden and then I finish what I had no time to do in the morning. Afternoon tea at 4.00 p.m. From 4.30 to 5.00 playing through what I composed in the morning. At 5.00 I go for a walk, usually towards Kossary. From 7.00-8.30 letter writing or reading, but unfortunately more letter writing as I have to correspond with different new people. I do go to the big house but not very often.
This life is very nice, only it is a pity that Komenka is so disgusting and smelly, especially at the present moment when there is an impossible drought with strong winds and dust. It is a pity too, that for the sake of some money I accepted an order from the brothers Yurgenson [Tchaikovsky's publishers] to compose six piano pieces. This gets in the way of my inspiration. I have to force my music out of my head, both for the opera [Tchaikovsky was working on Mazeppa] and the piano pieces and as a result of this perpetual effort I sleep badly, not peacefully - however, I am well as always
The "six piano pieces" referred to by Tchaikovsky eventually were published as Opus 51. Although many critics dismissed these pieces as "light dance movements" they are quintessential Tchaikovsky. Each of the pieces have individual inscriptions, all to persons close to Tchaikovsky. His nieces, Anna and Vera, received Polka peu dansante and Romance, and his cousin, Anna Merkling, Menuetto scherzoso. Nata Pleskaya, for whom Tchaikovsky felt a great warmth, received the Natha-valse, a much extended version of a little piece (Nathalie-Valse) he had composed for her four years earlier. Both versions are included on this recording. The opening work (Valse de salon) was dedicated to a the wife of a close circle of family friends, Mariya Kondratyeva. The Kondratyev's daughter's governess, Emma Genton, received the lovely Valse sentimentale. The Valse de salon is full of bravura, while the Polka peu dansante is rhythmically piquant. The Menuetto scherzoso is fanciful, florid and somewhat improvisatory. The early Nathalie-Valse is gentle and child-like, while the revised Natha-valse is a tone-portrait of a young girl. The Romance is graceful and songful and probably a tone-portrait of his niece Vera. The Valse sentimentale is the best known work of the set. It is charming, intimate and melancholic, and is probably better known in its transcriptions for violin and piano.
Notes by Marina A. Ledin,
© 1995, Encore Consultants.
Born in Moscow, Oxana Yablonskaya studied with Anaida Sumbatyan until the age of sixteen. She then entered Moscow Conservatory where she worked with Alexander Goldenweiser, later continuing her studies with Tatiana Nikolayeva. She was introduced to the outside world as the First Prize winner of three international competitions, the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris, the Rio de Janeiro Competition, and the Vienna Beethoven Competition. She performed extensively in the Soviet Union and the Eastern-bloc countries and recorded for the Melodiya label.
In 1977 Oxana Yablonskaya emigrated to the United States and made her first recital appearance to great acclaim four months later at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. A sold-out Carnegie Hall concert followed and she has since taken her place among the major pianists of the world. She has performed in the world's major concert halls, including the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Royal Albert Hall in London, and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
Oxana Yablonskaya has performed in over thirty countries from the United States, Mexico, Central and South America, and most of Western Europe, to the Orient, India, Australia, and New Zealand. She is a member of the piano faculty of The Juilliard School in New York.
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TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Music, Vol. 1