TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 1 in g minor, “Winter Daydreams”; The Tempest – Orch. of St. Luke’s/ Pablo Heras-Cadado – Harmonia mundi

Conductor Heras-Casado and St. Luke’s capture two programmatic symphonic works by Tchaikovsky.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 1 in g minor, Op. 13 “Winter Daydreams”; The Tempest, Op. 18 – Orch. of St. Luke’s/ Pablo Heras-Cadado – Harmonia mundi HMC 902220, 68:18 (11/4/16) [Distr. By PIAS] ****:

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony (1868) combines his strong desire to compete in “German” forms – under the strict guidance of Anton Rubinstein – with his innate commitment to Russian folklore and landscapes. The urge to sonata-form that dominates the first movement must also accommodate its program, “Dreams of a winter’s journey.”

Conductor Heras-Casado (rec. 7 November 2014 and 3031 October 2015) follows the likes of Igor Markevitch, Leonard Bernstein, and Lorin Maazel who find an intensely lyrical impulse’s permeating the score, from the opening, fluttering flute and the brass fanfares that ensue, fortissimo. The declamatory material will provide material for Tchaikovsky’s last movement finale as well.  The clarinet ushers in the serene secondary theme, which soon moves through variants and paraphrases. The extensive coda pulsates with the original theme, now accompanied by virile riffs in the basses. The second movement, like the first, bears a program of sorts: “Land of desolation, land of mists.” Muted strings announce the Adagio cantabile that forms a kind of lyrical, melancholy rondo. The solo oboe carries the extended tune with ornamental asides from the flute. The effect becomes increasingly balletic, and we can easily imagine a scenario danced with swans and a handsome prince. Heras-Casado milks this wonderfully elegant melodic tissue with a loving hand. A serene, almost static, intimacy descends upon the scene that caresses the main theme, gaining some dramatic momentum, until the French horn declaims the tune once more at the coda.

The Scherzo: Allegro scherzando gicoso owes its tissue to Tchaikovsky’s early Piano Sonata No. 1, c. 1865.  The balletic impulse reigns here as well, easily evoking images of the snowflakes in The Nutcracker. The St. Luke woodwinds and strings cavort in light figures with a prominent bassoon part coloring them in. The winds’ dalliance breaks off for a dreamy waltz ripe for application in a major ballet, easily a model for any number of similar efforts from Glazunov. The coda for this music assumes a more martial character and then disappears into the low strings and woodwinds, then a tutti thump. The finale adumbrates much of the later Tchaikovsky in its structure of an Andante lugubre followed by Allegro moderato; Allegro maestoso – Allegro vivo. The Andante quotes a genuine Russian folk tune, “I am sowing flowers, my pretty one.” The tempo increases, as does Tchaikovsky’s “academic” penchant for contrapuntal treatment of his motifs. With the two polyphonic interludes having their say, the music has become decided martial in Russian spirit, turning the secondary tune into a reprise of the introductory music.  Here, we might note Tchaikovsky’s debt to Liszt’s notion of “transformation of theme.” Tchaikovsky’s capacity to create a radiant aura around his principal ideas already manifests itself in this energized music, which conductor Heras-Casado exploits to full advantage, courtesy of Sound Engineer Sascha von Oertzen.

Tchaikovsky owes his inspiration for music to Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest to musicologist and critic Vladimir Stasov, who had conceived a detailed program in 1872.  Tchaikovsky worked with haste to complete his symphonic-poem score for a December 1873 premiere. The “program,” as such, invokes a rare Tchaikovsky sea-scape in the manner of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, rife with fluttering string motifs for Prospero’s enchantment that echo – with the inclusion of the horns and winds – aspects of Wagner. The chorale moves aside to make way for a supernatural tempest – some of whose twittering figures will reappear in The Nutcracker – that threatens universal havoc. Here, Tchaikovsky seems to bow to influences from Berlioz as well as from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The St. Luke’s brass and battery have a field day with the storm effects. Only after the tempest subsides does the love theme of Miranda and Fernando appear amidst the delights of a “brave new world.” The St. Luke cello line tenderly announces the love theme. Something like ‘comic relief’ comes in the form of a scherzando, with Ariel and Caliban’s playing off their respective ‘elemental’ roles of air and earth, sounding contrapuntally.  Using his formula from the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, Tchaikovsky inserts his love theme once again, even more powerfully. So as to gain Prospero’s affirmation, his having consulted his magical books that allow him to affirm that “we such stuff as dream are made on.”  The music again invokes the eternal sea, thus to close symmetrically Shakespeare’s paean to the power of art to find consolation for human frailty.

—Gary Lemco

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