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Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Grand Sonata / Vassily Primakov

Release Date: 02/10/2009 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9283   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Vassily Primakov
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 15 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY The Seasons. Piano Sonata (“Grand”) in G Vassily Primakov (pn) BRIDGE 9283 (75:19)

Note author Malcolm MacDonald wonders the same thing I do in his program précis: Why did Tchaikovsky call his work The Seasons instead of The Months when it contains 12 movements, each corresponding in Read more subtitle and character to a month of the year? Of course, the extramusical associations apply only if you live in the northern hemisphere. If you happen to live in Australia, October is your spring, so you’re not likely to associate the 10th piece in the set, “October,” with its subtitle, “Autumn Song,” yet another argument that music is not a universal language. I’m assured, however, by the scientific data that contrary to urban legend water does not circulate down the drain in the opposite direction south of the equator.

It turns out that there is nothing enigmatic in the explanation of the title of the work or the epigraphs attached to its individual movements. Tchaikovsky was commissioned in 1875 by the editor of the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist to write 12 short pieces, each of which was to represent a month of the year. It was the editor’s intent to print the corresponding piece with each issue of the 1876 publication, and it was he, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, not Tchaikovsky, who supplied the descriptive subtitles to each movement.

Some question relating to the work’s composition does arise, but it concerns Tchaikovsky’s commitment or lack thereof to the project. As one persistent story has it, the composer compared the churning out of these calendar sketches to “baking musical pancakes,” and he charged his manservant, Andrei, with the task of reminding him the day before each piece was due so he could dash it off in the nick of time. The scenario makes for entertaining reading, but it’s not only improbable, it’s disputed by the facts. It’s known that Tchaikovsky sent the January and February pieces in advance to Bernard in December of 1875. March, April, and May appear to have been written separately, but the remaining seven pieces were composed together in the same copybook and sent to Bernard sometime in May. In other words, by May of 1876, Tchaikovsky had freed himself from his obligation, having completed all 12 numbers.

It’s generally agreed that Tchaikovsky was preoccupied with other more significant projects at the time—namely, Swan Lake and the tone poem Francesca da Rimini —and that the time and effort he invested in The Seasons were minimal. Yet, ironically, for a composer whose concerted piano works occupy a central place in the repertoire his arguably most negligible work for solo piano has become his most popular. That says something about the uneven quality and deficit of inspiration in evidence in his other solo keyboard works, most of which consist of short souvenirs, morceaux, folk songs, and/or arrangements.

Only three times did Tchaikovsky attempt to compose a large-scale piano sonata: (1) a student effort in F Minor in 1863–64, which he left unfinished; (2) a full-scale four-movement score in C?-Minor a year later, which remained unpublished until after his death; and (3) the G-Major Sonata on this disc, known as the “Grand,” in 1878, which bears the same opus number (37) as The Seasons.

Work on the sonata proceeded in fits and starts, the composer’s progress falling victim to both a lack of strong motivation for the task at hand and his distraction by another undertaking for which inspiration came more readily and for which he expressed greater enthusiasm, the Violin Concerto. No doubt, Tchaikovsky was still conflicted and emotionally distraught in 1878 as a result of the terminally unresolved dissolution of his marriage without benefit of legal divorce. But that tragicomedy is an opera libretto for another time.

Compared to the sonata with its current listing of 17 recordings, The Seasons has a whopping 43, but a handful of the sonata’s performances on disc have a degree of historical importance, not least of which is the 1956 version by Sviastoslav Richter that has circulated for some time on a number of labels.

In a double-header review in Fanfare 32:6, Michael Ullman compared Ilya Rachkovsky’s Naxos recording of the sonata to Primakov’s reading on this same Bridge CD under review for a second time. Ullman had some complimentary things to say about Primakov’s performance, but in the end gave a slight edge to Rachkovsky. On the latter, I must remain mute because I haven’t heard it, but I do have Leslie Howard’s Hyperion CD of all three Tchaikovsky sonatas, the first in a completion by Howard himself. I admire Howard immensely, but an observation I made about Hamish Milne in comparing his performance of Lyapunov’s piano concertos to a new release by Shorena Tsintsabadze in a recent issue might apply equally to Howard. He has performed invaluable services on behalf of a number of composers, with special attention to Liszt; but undertaking such a wide diversity of repertoire, and sometimes learning it quickly to satisfy recording schedules, can lead to a certain generic character in one’s playing where everything is approached in more or less the same manner.

Howard’s technical execution in the sonata is impressive, as always, but interpretively he sounds like he could be playing a piece by any number of other composers, including Liszt. Switching to Primakov, one immediately hears a greater sense of resolve in Tchaikovsky’s “Risoluto,” not to mention a grander, broader, more sweeping approach. Primakov’s playing, in conjunction with the much more dynamic Bridge recording, really grabs your attention and makes you sit up and take notice. And with the arrival of the Russian-flavored episode in measure 18, Primakov makes clear that this music can be by no one other than Tchaikovsky. This is an intense, powerful, and thoroughly absorbing performance which, when heard, can only leave you wondering why Tchaikovsky’s “Grand” Sonata has not joined other monumental piano sonatas, like Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier,” Schubert’s B?-Major, Brahms’s F Minor, and Liszt’s B Minor, on the hit-parade list.

When it comes to The Seasons , frankly, its recorded popularity, either in the whole or in selected movements, mystifies me. These Schumannesque vignettes make for pleasant enough listening, but they’re second-drawer Tchaikovsky at best. Perhaps pianists are drawn to them because the composer gave them so little else of significance to play. In any case, Primakov does as much or more for them than other pianists I’m familiar with in these pieces, such as Pletnev and Ashkenazy. The only other pianist who I’d say gives Primakov a run for the money is Yefim Bronfman on a Sony CD on which he also delivers a stunning performance of what was once rated the most difficult piece of solo piano music ever written—and perhaps still is—Balakirev’s Islamey.

Primakov made the current recording in September 2008, playing a Steinway Concert D in the Recital Hall at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY College in Purchase, New York. It’s a fantastic recording that may promote Tchaikovsky’s “Grand” Sonata to a higher, deserved status, and I enthusiastically recommend it.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Many pianists handle the 12 pieces of Tchaikovsky's The Seasons with kid gloves, playing too gently and lyrically for the music's diverse characterizations and strong dance roots to fully register. Mikhail Pletnev's reference Virgin Classics recording is an exception, and so is the present recording by Vassily Primakov. The music easily absorbs, and often benefits from, Primakov's impulsive phraseology, such as the harmonic tangents within January's repeated figures, December's heady animation and marvelously varied articulation, or May's offhand narrative flow.

Primakov's considerable tonal resources and ear for textural diversity makes the G major sonata's gnarly and block-like piano writing sound more pianistically idiomatic and supple than usual. To his credit, the pianist scales the first, second, and fourth-movement climaxes to perfection without pushing his full-bodied sonority to the point of banging. If you want The Seasons and the G major sonata coupled on one disc, Primakov definitely surpasses the Kasman (Calliope) and Katin (Olympia) editions.

--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Les saisons, Op. 37b by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Vassily Primakov (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: Russia 
Notes: Audio Engineer: Adam Abeshouse.
Audio Producer: David Starobin.
Composition written: Russia (1875 - 1876). 
Sonata for Piano in G major, Op. 37 "Grande Sonate" by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Vassily Primakov (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878; Russia 

Featured Sound Samples

The Seasons: February: Carnival
Piano Sonata in G "Grande Sonate": IV. Allegro vivace

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