It is regrettable that André
Tchaikowsky only made a combined total of ten records for RCA Victor and Columbia. These all originated from the early part of his career. His difficult, uncooperative and, at times, abrasive personality alienated him from conductors and record producers alike. His concert career, especially in the States, similarly suffered as a result of his unconventional behaviour. His dislike of the social mores of the concert-giving circuit, and especially the patronage of the arts in America at the time by rich socialite ladies, is well-documented.
Since his untimely death from colon cancer at the age of forty-six in 1982, CD reissues of his recordings have been scarce and sporadic. Dante, the now defunct French CD label, issued five volumes of the complete Columbia (EMI) recordings in 1996 as part of their Historical Piano Collection (HPC) series. If you were lucky enough to snap them up at the time, as I did, you will find some gems. They have now vanished into oblivion. In this vintage series, there’s an excellent Bach Goldberg Variations
and a fine selection of Chopin Mazurkas. Discs of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert also feature. The RCA recordings, unfortunately, have had no such advocates for CD reissue, apart from a disc featuring the Mozart Concerto under discussion here, which was released in Japan some years ago. So very welcome indeed is this Forgotten Records release of Tchaikowsky’s complete Mozart recordings made for RCA Victor in the late ’fifties.
There is a very interesting story concerning the recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K503. Four days before the recording, Tchaikowsky deputized for an indisposed Clara Haskil in a performance of this Mozart Concerto and a Bach Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - his collaborators in the subsequent recording. True to form, in his often cavalier manner, he arrived in Chicago a few days prior to the concert and bought the sheet music, which he proceeded to sight read at the first rehearsal much to Reiner’s chagrin. The incident is related fully in Fritz Reiner: A Biography
(1994) by Philip Hart. The concert went ahead, but relations between conductor and pianist subsequently became strained. Yet amazingly, Tchaikowsky managed to memorize the music for the concert performance.
Four days later the recording took place. I was not able to discover whether Tchaikowsky was deputizing for Haskil at these sessions, as well as at the concert, though it seems to me very likely that he was for two reasons. Firstly, the same two concertos were recorded - the pianist subsequently refused the release of the Bach Concerto. Secondly, recording sessions are usually booked well in advance with the concert performance acting as a sort of preliminary play-through. As Tchaikowsky had only just bought the music, it seems highly unlikely that the sessions were booked for him, and this was Haskil repertoire, in any case.
The Mozart Concerto is an intelligent reading, and one in no way detects any unfamiliarity with the score from the soloist’s perspective. It’s a nicely paced performance, where the pianist is sensitively supported by Reiner. Unfussy and unselfconscious, as was Reiner’s wont, the reading is classical in its approach, with due regard paid to structure and architecture. The woodwinds shine through with exquisite refinement. The strings are warm and rich-sounding. At the concert, Tchaikowsky improvised the first movement cadenza, which he also does here. I can’t say I particularly like it. I find it unidiomatic and, in parts brash. The second movement is lyrical and warm with an expressive and eloquent dialogue taking place between soloist and orchestra. Phrases are well-matched. Tchaikowsky achieves a beautiful translucent, bell-like tone. The finale is carefree, joyous and relaxed. One can only marvel at the pianist’s pearl-like finger-work and evenness of tone.
The C minor Fantasie K475 was published in December 1785 together with the Sonata in C minor, K457. The two works are often paired in performance, as they are here. The Fantasie has many different changes in tempi and traverses a spectrum of modulations. The pianist carries this work off superbly, maintaining the line and narrative throughout the small dramas.
Tchaikowsky’s approach to the two sonatas is very much akin to his reading of the concerto. He shuns an overly-romantic approach, which afflicts some performances I’ve heard. Neither does he impose his personality, but rather lets the music speak for itself. Rubatos are carefully managed and are in no way intrusive, fitting into the general discourse. Ornaments are idiomatic and exquisitely handled. Bass lines are sensitively pointed. The slow movements have a sort of innocence, with emphasis placed on the lyrical and expressive elements. Dynamics are finely graded, and tempi are well-chosen. Tchaikowsky takes great care over phrasing in portraying the dramatic aspects. Sensitivity of touch, filigree finger-work, and sensitive pedalling to achieve tonal colour all add to the success of the mix.
It is a pity that these are the only two sonatas the pianist committed to disc for RCA; he did record the Sonata in F major K533/494 for Columbia, which is included on the deleted Dante Mozart disc. The Concerto K503 is the only one he commercially recorded, though he did play all of Mozart’s concertos.
Sound quality in all the works featured is excellent. The sources are extremely fine RCA Victor LPs, all digitally re-mastered. No notes are provided, but links to internet sites of relevance are given.
It is commendable that Forgotten Records have made these recordings available once again. May I issue a plea to this enterprising company to consider Tchaikowsky’s RCA Ravel and Prokofiev recordings as possible releases for the future.
Masterwork Index: Piano concerto 25
André Tchaikowsky reviews
A Musician Divided - André Tchaikowsky in his Own Words
Music for piano