Boris Tchaikovsky and his music

The perception of contemporary Russian music in the West is currently under revision. The post-Shostakovich era was once thought of as no more than a haven for the avant garde, with names such as Edison Denisov, Alfred Schnittke, and more recently, Sophia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvolskaya, and others, claiming the limelight. But times are changing. A handful of lesser-known composers whose work stands at a stylistic crossroads between Shostakovich and their more celebrated counterparts are gradually coming into focus. These composers - they include such figures as Mieczeslav Weinberg, Boris Tishchenko, Georgi Sviridov, Gavriil Popov, Nikolai Peiko, and Revol Bunin - demonstrate that Russian music in the latter half of the 20th Century is far richer and more varied than was previously imagined.

Included in this distinguished company is Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996), hailed by such eminent figures as Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich as one of the most original voices of his generation (he bears no family relation to his famous 19th Century namesake). His music has been performed by orchestras worldwide, including the London Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Staatskapelle Dresden, NDR Symphony, and the Moscow Philharmonic. Tchaikovsky's musical voice is one of strong individuality. His work offers an ever-fresh source of lyrical inventiveness and new formal possibilities, written in a contemporary style that embraces beauty, depth of expression, and accessibility. His sizeable catalogue includes four symphonies; a Chamber Symphony; a concerto each for cello, clarinet, piano, and violin; six string quartets; and various other works for orchestra and chamber ensemble. If he is at all known in the West it is for his Sinfonietta and Theme and Eight Variations for Large Symphony Orchestra, through their rare appearances in the recording catalogue.

Tchaikovsky was trained at the Moscow Conservatory in the worst of times: during Stalin's notorious postwar assault on the arts. To his credit, he refused to take part in the officially authorized tirades against the terrorized Shostakovich, who was banned from the Conservatory at the time and whose former students, Tchaikovsky being among them, were branded as 'contaminated'. He graduated in 1949, not totally unscathed himself, yet having studied composition under three of the most prominent masters of instrumental music of the time - Shostakovich, Nikolai Miaskovsky, and Vissarion Shebalin. His early work boasts fully mastered craftsmanship and originality, all the while directly reflecting the influence of his teachers: Miaskovsky in the haunting strains of the Sinfonietta for Strings and Shostakovich in the noble elegance of the Piano Trio, both from 1953. These and other compositions from the same decade brought visibility to the young composer. Tchaikovsky seemed destined for a decorated, if not distinguished, composing career. But his greatest qualities were yet to be demonstrated.

The cultural thaw of the early 1960s opened many creative doors for Soviet composers. As a vigorous avant garde movement was then emerging, Tchaikovsky's own artistic development, quite independently, was also in flux. The lyricism that lay at the base of his musical thinking was undergoing profound metamorphosis. That lyricism was progressively becoming couched within a fresh, mosaic style whereby the music's surface is carved into a succession of bold, accentuated utterances. The curious rhythmic rigidity of these utterances - a Tchaikovsky hallmark - is offset by considerable flexibility in the music's other variables, such as increased levels of dissonance and colorful instrumental contrasts. If a hint of a Shostakovich or even a Britten influence can be discerned, Tchaikovsky's new lyricism and the unique rhythmic and harmonic framework in which it is cast are distinctly recognizable as his own. Tchaikovsky had found his mature voice, which allowed him to create a powerful new language that was distinctly Russian in sound, thoroughly up-to-date, and capable of a wide range of expression. It is the language for all of his future compositions.

Tchaikovsky now began to pursue different developmental and formal strategies as an organic outgrowth of his new style. The Piano Quintet (1962) and Cello Concerto (1964) represent the first major works in this effort. He soon found that his new syntax, wherein harmonic and especially rhythmic reference points are so firmly etched into each phrase, was capable of building an architecture from a series of short movements, or miniatures. The focus on a handful of smaller forms within a larger form, akin to the orchestral suites of the Baroque period, would provide him with a fertile ground of experimentation. The short movement, multi-part designs that he gravitated towards thereafter reflect this new compositional attitude: the six-part Partita for Cello and Chamber Ensemble (1966), the six-part Chamber Symphony (1967), Six Etudes for Strings and Organ (1976), Four Preludes for Chamber Orchestra (1984), the seven-part Music for Orchestra (1987), the five-part Symphony with Harp (1993), and so forth. These works expand the formal and expressive boundaries usually associated with the suite form.

Tchaikovsky's appetite for innovation was inexhaustible. In each work he seemed to have cherished the prospect of new technical challenges. For example, he would occasionally adopt a single-movement format, as in the substantial Violin Concerto (1969) and the concentrated Fifth (1974) and Sixth (1976) String Quartets. In these works one finds an extension of his piecemeal approach, leading to self-defining forms that stand apart from anything found in the Austro-German tradition. In the case of the Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky experimented with a lyricism of "progressive transformation" in which new thematic ideas constantly evolve out of previous material. When Tchaikovsky does resort to standard sonata form, as in the opening movements of his Second Symphony (1967) and Sebastopol Symphony (1980), his unique style is again recognizable.

2004, Louis Blois

[written for the Albany Records CD]