Barry Brenesal (Fanfare)


B. TCHAIKOVSKY Four Poems by Josef Brodsky.1,7 From Kipling.2,4 String Trio.3,4,5 Two Poems by Mikhail Lermontov.1,7 Two Pieces for Balalaika and Piano.6,7 Lyrics of Pushkin1,7 • Olga Filonova (sop);1 Svetlana Nikolayeva (mez);2 Alexei Khutoriansky (vn);3 Lev Serov (va);4 Marina Archakova (vc);5 Kiril Ershov (balalaika);6 Olga Solovieva (pn)7 • TOCCATA DDD 0046 (65:10)

There’s no consistent thread to this release, nothing that lets you say, “This is its focus.” It includes two important song cycles by Boris Tchaikovsky, but also several short, relatively trivial works—including two short pieces for balalaika and piano—as well as an important string trio by the composer. It doesn’t concentrate on any particular point in his career; it begins in 1940, and concludes with 1994. But it isn’t a chronological perspective, because the prime works all were written in a 17-year period. Nor is any single performer a consistent presence, and we are not offered an external reference point that might provide context to a “theme” program. In the end, it’s simply a collection of Tchaikovsky, a well-performed one, and welcome for that.

Of the three major works, the trio was the earliest. Written in 1955, Shostakovich thought well of it. According to Flora Litvinova, in Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, the older composer remarked to her at its premiere, “Yes, his trio is wonderful, excellent. Boris is very talented, and works hard. And that’s important, because in music professionalism means so much. … But professionalism combined with talent, as in Boris’s case, gives rise to wonderful music.” The grim first movement recalls the opening of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in its recourse to counterpoint, while the achingly lyrical Andante achieves intensity through the deployment of successive linear entries and an almost hypnotic use of imitation. More Weinberg-like is the nostalgic waltz that appears toward its conclusion; but the third movement, with its sunny vein and wrong-note theme, recalls Shostakovich’s First Quartet.

The Four Poems by Josef Brodsky was composed in 1965, a year after the future Nobel laureate in literature was put on trial for “parasitism” and initially sentenced to five years’ hard labor. Tchaikovsky’s commitment was a measure of his courage, though the premiere of the songs, with Galina Vishnevskaya, was naturally enough canceled at the last minute by order of the government. The songs were first heard in 1988, in Boston. Emotionally vibrant, they run the gamut from farcical despair to formal blessing. This is mature Tchaikovsky: brief motifs, rhythmically driven, sometimes harmonically adventurous—yet willing to resort to an old-fashioned chorale or a deliberately satirical Alberti bass to score his points.

The composer declared that he found something of the Russian Silver Age—the 19th-century fin de siècle—in Brodsky’s poems. For Lyrics of Pushkin, he turned to eight poems by the master of the Russian Golden Age, finishing the music in 1972. Tchaikovsky devises an overarching theme through three pieces—the first, “Echo,” the fourth, “To the Poet,” and the seventh, “From Pindermonti”—that emphasize different aspects of the artist’s life. The others deal in turn with the poet’s reactions to thoughts of love, despair, hope, and finally stoicism. As always with Tchaikovsky, there is a tension between harshness and a songful gift for melody, sparingly and tellingly applied.

For the rest, there’s From Kipling (1994), two miniatures for mezzo-soprano and viola that were intended to be part of a longer cycle, interrupted by the composer’s death. The textures are slim, the participants often pursuing contrapuntally independent courses of action. Two Poems by Mikhail Lermontov (1940) was composed when Tchaikovsky was only 15: pretty things, with fine part-writing and a sense of modal melancholy that may have come from his teacher at the time, Miaskovsky. The Two Pieces for Balalaika and Piano (1991) were commissioned by a well-known balalaika player who died before they could be performed. The first is folk at its fluffiest, a transcription of a short tune Tchaikovsky wrote for a film, while the second at times treats the instrument like a lute, to interesting effect.

The performers are all impressive, none more so than Olga Filonova. This lyric soprano has been caught in her prime, with a striking and finely focused timbre. Her slightly faster than usual vibrato gives a gleam to her tone as the voice rises, abetted by her legato and strong breath support. She truly bows her voice, as the first of the Lermontov songs, “Autumn,” shows, and lacks nothing for either fearless attack or magical softening (“Echo” in the Pushkin set). Svetlana Nikolayeva is only slightly less good, with some wear around the break, while Olga Solovieva, who did such a fine job in Toccata Classics’ album of piano music by Galynin, demonstrates that she’s just as fine an accompanist. The formidably exposed start of the String Trio holds no terrors for Khutoriansky, Serov, and Archakova. Theirs is some of the most incisive yet nuanced chamber playing I’ve heard since the Belcea Quartet’s Bartók. I am not a balalaika connoisseur, so I can’t really comment on Kiril Ershov’s performance other than to note that it is note perfect and played with enthusiasm.

Add in good sound, and strong liner notes. Strange though this collection may be, it’s truly a winner.