Tchaikovsky: Piano Sonatas Opp. 37 & 80 – Vadym Kholodenko – Harmonia mundi

by | Jul 6, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: Grande Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 37; Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 80; November: Troika from The Months, Op. 37a, No. 11; Romance from Six Pieces, Op. 51, No. 5 -Vadym Kholodenko, piano – Harmonia mundi HMM 902656 (6/11/21) 75:05 [Distr. by PIAS] ****: 

I recall, during a taping of the radio program, “First Hearing,” over WQXR-FM, suggesting the pairing of the two Tchaikovsky piano sonatas to the late Ruth Laredo, who at the time had great success with her Rachmaninoff cycle for CBS. But, while Laredo conceded the virtues of the 1878 Grande Sonata, she disdained any idea of dealing with the early, Conservatory student 1865 sonata published posthumously. Vadym Kholodenko (rec. September 2019) rather embraces the opportunity to present Tchaikovsky in his guise as both student and established master of his idiom, given the Grande Sonata’s chronological place next to the Violin Concerto. Kholodenko performs the entire recital on a Fazioli instrument of persuasive tone and resonance. 

The Grande Sonata, composed in Switzerland, means to be a challenge both to the pianist’s stamina and technical capacity for orchestral effects. One can find in the structural basis much of Schumann and Liszt, insofar as the grand motif permeates all four movements, first set in the opening Moderato e risoluto as a stentorian declamation in an approximation of Russian bells. The contrasting dolce theme arrives in E Minor, but its solace becomes prey to the Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass that would haunt Rachmaninoff’s every creative moment. Though cast in sonata-form, so vital to Tchaikovsky’s sense of “German legitimacy” as a composer, the constant shifts of emotion instill in us the sense of a grand rhapsody culminating a potent cadenza, before the recapitulation and the return of the Dies Irae and its sense of grim mortality. 

Tchaikovsky Portrait

Peter Tchaikovsky

The E Minor Andante non troppo quasi Moderato seems a direct heir to Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 from Op. 28 in the same key. Set as a loose theme and variations, the music proceeds by step-wise motion and runs in dotted rhythm. Tchaikovsky offers some light in the key of E-flat Major, a kind of romance episode set in lulling arpeggios. Even in the midst of such enchantment, the Dies Irae makes its grim presence felt. A skittish scherzando episode easily suggests Schumann moment from his Humoreske. After a dramatic climax, the syncopated coda reminisces in melancholy refrain, concluding morendo in evaporating chords. The Allegro giocoso that follows in uninterrupted triplets easily suggests the little Gigue of Mozart Tchaikovsky admired and imitated for his Fourth Orchestral Suite. Kholendeko makes this movement a suave toccata. The percussive, even pompous, Finale: Allegro vivace combines elements of sonata-form and rondo, a structure that can be traced back to Haydn. Much of the dancing, syncopated filigree resonates with ballet sensibility, while the arioso sections remind us of Tchaikovsky’s penchant for chansons. Some of the scalar motion reminds us of virtuosic moments in the first two piano concertos. The modulation into B Minor cements the Lisztian allusions for this auditor. The extended coda resolves the mortal storms in this convulsive piano sonata, ending in a tranquil cadence that manages yet to  ring of heroism.

The 1865 Sonata in C-sharp Minor owes its printed existence to Serge Taneyev, who arranged its publication in 1900. Tchaikovsky’s debts to Schumann emerge early, especially that composer’s own Sonata No. 1, Op. 11. The initial melody from Tchaikovsky, Allegro con fuoco, appears marcato early, but his impetus proves lyrical and dreamy. He likes broken intervals and rushes of arpeggiated scales. The bass registers resonate in chords easily suggestive of Anton Rubinstein, though the four-note motto could allude to Beethoven. Before the coda, the second theme returns in the enharmonic key of D-flat. 

The Andante presents a simple theme reminiscent of Mendelssohn that undergoes a series of virtuosic variations. A march evolves into a series of arpeggiated flourishes in the high registers and soon reverses course, descending into the low with a Lisztian filigree, even with a sense of a chorale. A light, syncopated variant carries us gently to the final bars. The Scherzo: Allegro vivo gives us a dance that charmed Tchaikovsky enough to utilize it in his Symphony No. 1, “Winter Dreams.” And so, this music plays basically like a skillful transcription of strong, original materials, the Trio section’s moving in graceful arabesques. Marked attacca subito, the third movement transitions into the finale, Allegro vivo, which progresses in sonata form. Large chords play against brief dissonances to lead us to a chorale marked tranquillo ma energico; yet the turbulence seems derived from Schumann, though the key changes and dissonances point to a curious future. Tchaikovsky chooses again to  employ the enharmonic D-flat as his key for resolution. Tchaikovsky saves his vehement bravura for the last pages, thriving on chords and stretti that testify to a strong technique in composer who did not seek his own career as a touring pianist.

Kholodenko graces us with a familiar encore, “November” from Tchaikovsky’s 1876 The Months, conceived as monthly contributions to the magazine Nouvellist. This E Major study, Troika, depicts the pleasure in driving a three-horse carriage. The mood expands into a lovely song, offset by a syncopated middle-section dance in folk figures reminiscent of Grieg. The imitation of sleigh bells is juxtaposed with the original melody most attractively. 

For his last entry, Kholodenko chooses the 1882 Romance from the set of Six Pieces, a work of serene confidence in the composer’s melodic gift in persuasive salon music. The arpeggiandos as they merge from Kholodenko’s Fazioli instrument project the lulling affect of which Tchaikovsky had become a past master. This has been a most affectionate survey of Tchaikovsky’s keyboard oeuvre, large and small.

—Gary Lemco

Kholodenko plays Tchaikovsky

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