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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Seasons Op. 37a [46:22]
Morceaux, Op. 10 [7:35]
Romance in F minor, Op. 5 [6:18]
Aveu passionné in E Minor [3:25]
Dumka (Russian Rustic Scene), Op. 59 [10:09]
Yuan Sheng (piano)
rec. Recording Studio of China Recording Company, Beijing, China, 2017

Of all the solo piano music of Tchaikovsky, The Seasons has a special place and has always been popular, despite the fact that it is, realistically, salon music. Of all Tchaikovsky’s music, that for small scale forces, especially his songs and his piano music, is the least known, and this despite the fact that he composed about one hundred and fifty individual pieces. The problem with these pieces is that only a handful were composed for virtuoso pianists to play, the majority were composed for pedagogical purposes or for gifted middle-class educated amateurs to play; The Seasons falls in to the latter category.

Composed for the 1876 monthly editions of the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist, the idea coming from the publisher Bernard, who asked for twelve character-pieces based upon the months and the titles that he had sent to Tchaikovsky. Whilst January and February were composed in 1875, the remaining ten pieces were all composed by May 1876, thus disproving the persistent rumour that his servants had to continually prompt Tchaikovsky to complete the pieces on time for the monthly deadline, indeed at the time of accepting the commission Tchaikovsky had written in a letter that “I am very much in the mood for working on piano pieces now”. When he sent Bernard the first two pieces, Tchaikovsky was worried about the style and standard of the music, saying that if the publisher deemed them unsuitable for his readership to let him know immediately and he would alter them. This shows that Tchaikovsky was acutely aware of the intended market for these pieces and that they were not really intended for the professional pianist. That being said, they proved very popular with both the subscribers to the magazine and professional pianists alike, with ‘November: Troika’, even becoming a favourite encore of Sergei Rachmaninov.

This is my third recording of The Seasons on disc, although at the moment I am unable to find my disc of Ilona Prunyi’s somewhat brisk account on Naxos (8.550233); much better is Lev Vinocour on Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG 604 1397-2), as he offers a much more measured and insightful reading than Prunyi. Here Yuan Sheng presents a recording that has a lot to offer, with tempos that are slightly slower than Vinocour’s. This accentuates the slower pieces, giving a lovely performance for example of ‘March: Song of the Lark’ and ‘May: May Nights’, here the playing allows the lyrical and tender elements of the music to shine through. On the other hand, in the quicker movements such as ‘February: Carnival’, Youan holds his own, I do find his ‘Troika’ to be caught in a bit of a snowdrift, a nice rendition but a little too slow for my liking. He follows this with a lovely rendition of ‘December: Christmas’ in which he accentuates the waltz elements of the piece.

Yuan Sheng offers five more of the composers one hundred and fifty or so piano pieces, including nice recordings of the two opus 10 pieces. However, it is the opus 59 ‘Dumka’ that is the standout piece amongst them. Perhaps it is because the piece was intended for the concert hall, but this is Tchaikovsky at his best, it certainly lives up to its working title of ‘Rhapsody’, with the time to develop the strong rhapsodic elements of this music coming to fruition here. Lev Vinocour also offers this piece on his disc and to be honest there is very little to compare between the two pianists, with both offering a first-rate performance.

Yuan Sheng therefore offers the listener a good reading of this ever-popular suite of pieces, one which, if it lacks the insight if Lev Vinocour certainly has a lot going for it, especially when you take into account the recorded sound and very good booklet notes.

Stuart Sillitoe


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