UNSUNG HEROES: BORIS TCHAIKOVSKY
Boris Tchaikovsky was born in Moscow in 1925, dying there in 1996. A pupil of the 'father of the Soviet Symphony' Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950), Dmitri Shostakovich and Vissarion Shebalin (1902-63), Tchaikovsky gradually developed into a prolific composer in his own right. His distinctive voice and credo are ultimately totally independent of his former mentors, and his mature compositions gained wide-spread admiration and promotion via high profile performances from artists as distinguished as Kirill Kondrashin, Rudolph Barshai, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya and Igor Oistrakh.His impressive compositional output includes four symphonies, a chamber symphony, concertos for violin, piano (in five movements -1971) and cello, a piano trio and quintet, six string quartets, a violin sonata, vocal works and scores for over 30 films. Tchaikovsky was an impressive pianist, studying the instrument with Lev Oborin and producing, in addition to the aforementioned concerto, a two piano sonata in three movements (1973), and solo works including 3 Etudes (1935), 5 Pieces (also 1935), 5 Pieces (1938), 2 Pieces (1945), 8 Children's Pieces (1952), 'Pentatonic: 6 Light Pieces' (1993), 'Natural Modes: 7 Miniatures for Piano' (1993), a microscopic 'Sonatina' (1946) and two large scale Sonatas in three movements (1944 & 1952). All in all, the solo piano works fill just over a whole CD of music.
At first glance Boris Tchaikovsky's music can appear traditionalist, and to an extent this is a fair comment when considering early works such as the attractive 'Sinfonietta for string orchestra' (1953). Here the composer's melodic gift is immediately felt in music that is certainly partially indebted to the late romantic nostalgia associated with many a Myaskovsky score, but its haunting beauty begs our attention, as does the more Shostakovichian Piano Trio of the same year. Something of a sea-change unquestionably occurred to Tchaikovsky in the 1960s when his preferences tended towards mosaic 'block' structures as well as colours and harmonies of a more contemporary and 'cutting edge' ilk. But he always retained something of a Janus-faced tendency throughout his output, and in pieces such as the Cello Concerto (1964) and the 'Theme and Eight Variations' for Orchestra (1973) it would most certainly be wrong to say that the author had lost the lyrical melodic qualities that are so evident and persuasive from earlier compositions.
There is an almost indefinable 'Russian' quality to much of Tchaikovsky's music, and though mature works such as the above, or the 2nd Symphony (1967) may superficially remind one on first hearing of Britten or Shostakovich, there is often near irony in Tchaikovsky's use (perhaps better described here as his 'placement') of motifs familiar to the listener from countless earlier and celebrated musical contexts. Quite often Tchaikovsky focuses his technical resources as a composer on a raw musical element (a simple chord, or an interval, rhythmic fragment etc) then builds entire edifices from that particular musical shaving, not in 'classic' Schoenbergian development, but rather with maverick-like cunning. Of his 'Sebastopol Symphony' (1980), Tchaikovsky wrote: 'Any educated person will say that every element in a piece must be repeated. But I have broken that rule rather often, like, for instance, in the 'Sebastopol' Symphony. It starts just from the first theme, and then it's all new material. And then, after a false recapitulation, the music begins to repeat itself, but some things that were obvious disappear without trace. I knew I had 'sinned', but then decided that something has to go and not come back'.
Of course one of the main problems with musicology over the years has been the steadfast refusal in certain influential quarters to analyse compositions on their own terms rather than those of others (for example, the appalling negativity aroused for generations against the Schubert Sonatas solely on the grounds that they did not conform to the Beethovenian ideal) so one can therefore understand why a composer like Boris Tchaikovsky could initially appear 'ungainly' in a conservative sense to those who do not immediately grasp the highly creative and subtle means by which he extends and teases in whatever structural mode he chooses to operate. But with the major works of Tchaikovsky's last period (from the afore-mentioned Sebastopol Symphony of 1980 onwards) it is fair to say that the composer had even more technical confidence and conviction than before. These qualities bring added gravitas and inevitability to works such as the vocal cycle 'Last Spring' (1980) and the Symphonic Poems ' The Wind of Siberia' and 'Juvenile' (1984). This 'Indian Summer' in the composer's career came after a four year period of virtual silence from 1976 in which he had an apparent personal re-assessment and 'creative sabbatical'.
Clearly there is still an enormous amount of Tchaikovsky still awaiting re-discovery. For Pianists, the concerto and two Piano Sonata remain intriguing possibilities full of promise, but the recent arrival on CD of a selection of the shorter solo pieces, the Sonatina and two Sonatas from the excellent young Russian Olga Solovieva (Albany, TROY 749) confirms that Tchaikovsky's piano music is tremendously rewarding, often highly individual. This is particularly true in the gorgeously serene slow movement of the Second sonata, a work approaching 18 minutes in length, complete with neo-baroque motor rhythms in the outer movements. The first sonata owes more than a little to Shostakovich in its drama, vivid energy and conflicting emotional turns. Its optimistic finale acts as an excellent foil to much of the angst that preceeded it, and at only 13 minutes or so duration, it is never in danger of outstaying its welcome. The eight children's pieces of 1952 are snap-shots, but ironic and powerfully conceived nonetheless. With the four movement Sonatina bitter dissonance gradually yields to romantic populism, and its foot-tapping Troika rhythms are guaranteed to melt hearts! Olga Solovieva's enterprising selection is completed with the late sets of quasi oriental miniatures, 'Natural Modes' and 'Pentatonica', both charming and idiomatically conceived. They may be 'shavings off a work-bench', but at their best they evoke the spirit of another great unknown Russian master, Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) and are most certainly highly accessible too.
© 2005, Murray McLachlan
[written for Magazine 'Piano' (Rhinegold Publications, London)]