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TCHAIKOVSKY: Grande Sonata in G Major; The Seasons: 12 Characteristic Pieces – Alexander Paley, p. – Aparte (2 CDs)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Grande Sonata in G Major, Op. 37; The Seasons: 12 Characteristic Pieces, Op. 37b – Alexander Paley, piano –  Aparte AP087 (2 CDs) 40:32, 50:24 (8/12/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Tchaikovsky often felt as though he had to legitimate his musical talent by fashioning his works according to German models, and his 1878 Grande Sonata – dedicated to Karl Klindworth – stands as the most successful of his three efforts, despite its knotty and stentorian, block-chord keyboard style. Alexander Paley (rec. January 2012) manages to combine its aggressive, fanciful writing – much in the style of Schumann – with the composer’s lyrical, liquid energies. We might consider that Paley’s model here could well be Sviatoslav Richter, who occasionally would apply his own titanic prowess to this piece.  Within the clarion, percussive motion of the Moderato e risoluto we can discern the sequence – in major tonalityDies Irae that would become a motto for Sergei Rachmaninov. The music itself, so unyielding in its martial aggression, does not leave much room for subtlety. In the meandering course of the movement’s development Tchaikovsky layers his sonorities much in the manner of Liszt in his Dante Sonata.

The second movement, an Andante in E Minor, opens like a transposition of the Chopin Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4 fused to figures from the same composer’s Funeral March from the Second Sonata.  The clouds disperse somewhat in the middle section, Moderato con animazione in C Major. Rhetorical and improvisatory, the music returns to the opening materials, now highly ornamented and blazing up into a chorale that dissolves into balletic, repetitive arpeggios. Schumann-style canons ensue that eventually fade away in a kind of stuttering. The whimsical Scherzo in 6/16 runs with sixteenth notes and punctuated syncopes. Paley makes it sound like a jazz improvisation. The Finale confirms Tchaikovsky’s uneasy control of an amalgam of ideas, clarion, aggressive, manic, then charmingly tender like a scene from Swan Lake. The effect of Russian bells, in the Schumann style, extends the music for another five minutes, some of which reminds us of the B-flat Minor Concerto.  The final flourish echoes Chopin, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, all at once.

The publisher Nikolay Bernard commissioned Tchaikovsky in 1875 to create a musical calendar, The Months, for the St. Petersburg journal, Nuvellist. Each of the character pieces has a poetic epigraph attached, of which two – January and September – derive from Pushkin. Pianist Paley relinquishes some of the percussive aspects of his digital arsenal and favors the poetic, musing guise of tender evocation, such as in the cantabile March (by A. Maykov) and May (after A. Fet). February, however, with its Shrovetide “Carnival” atmosphere (after the poet P. Vyazemsky), projects some fireworks, quite in anticipation of Stravinsky in Petrushka. Both Song of the Reaper (July, after A. Koltsov) and August’s Harvest (after A. Koltsov) likewise display a hard patina, the latter a virtual staccato etude.

Most familiar, June (a Barcarolle after A. Pleschcheyev), enjoys the kind of careful melodic shape we expect in the composer’s great ballets. Paley’s slow reading milks every ounce of sentiment from the occasion. Hunting horns in September prove quite feral, a potent, syncopated call to the woods. Autumn Song for October (by A.K. Tolstoy) brings the Tchaikovsky ardent melancholy, a melody that might have graced his Violin Concerto. Nekrassov wrote the poem that accompanies the November Troika, another sad but impish evocation of the open road and infinite nostalgia in mixed harmony. December (after Zhukovsky) settles us in at Yuletide, a lilted dance that has more than a touch of both Chopin and Schumann.

—Gary Lemco

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