TCHAIKOVSKY: Music for Cello and Orchestra.
Variations on a Rococo Theme (orig. 1876 version). Nocturne, op. 19/4 (arr. Tchaikovsky). Pezzo Capriccioso -- Morceau de Concert (orig. 1887 version). Two Songs (orch. Tchaikovsky). Andante Cantabile (arr. Tchaikovsky). Raphael Wallfisch (cello); English Chamber Orchestra/Geoffrey Simon. Chandos CHAN8347 TT: 47:04.

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A glorious restoration. I first loved Tchaikovsky as a child. After hearing the march from the Symphony No. 6, I (at age 8) awarded him the coveted Schwartz Award for Best Composer Ever. As a teen and young adult, I cast him into the Outer Darkness as a purveyor of sentimental sludge. My professors largely influenced me. It was, after all, the Sixties, when the Expressionist aesthetics of serialism had routed all before it, although I should have had the courage to own my likes. However, since I really couldn't avoid the ubiquity of Tchaikovsky's music, I began to hear new works and new things in him: the early symphonies, Manfred, Pique Dame, the string quartets, the Serenade, and so on. It became apparent to me that Tchaikovsky was a composer of great originality and innovation, with a craft and sense of poetry so remarkable, that it seemed that audiences accepted its harmonic wildness without a whimper. There are hair-raising dissonances even in my beloved Path�tique march. To slightly misquote James Agee, we were "raped in our sleep."

Nevertheless, it amazes me how often second-raters second-guess masters. Bruckner's symphonic legacy is such a mess as editor after editor "corrected" him that he had to specify in his will which of the editions of his works he wanted played, and yet recordings of the fake goods and even new editions continue to flow. The rationale (beyond correcting mistaken parts) often comes down to the poor composer miscalculated or even didn't know what he was doing. I'm talking mostly about silent editing, not about advertised arrangements or re-orchestrations or even reconstructions (eg, the Mahler 10th). For example, we seldom hear what Gershwin wrote for the concert hall as he had conceived it. Fran�ois-Joseph F�tis, a 19th-century Belgian-French composer, theoretician, and critic published an edition of the Beethoven symphonies in which he removed Beethoven's supposed harmonic incompetence and lack of taste -- producing what he thought Beethoven should have written. Moreover, these were standard in France for a while.

Conductors and publishers have routinely futzed with Tchaikovsky's scoring, all the while paying lip service to him as a master orchestrator. However, a particularly egregious example of interference was inflicted on his Variations on a Rococo Theme from the beginning of its concert life. He wrote it for a German cello virtuoso and composer Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a colleague at the Moscow Conservatory. Fitzenhagen, with an eye to his effect on the audience and more ego than brains, took a masterpiece and turned it into what musicologists have routinely described as a "mutilation." The Variations number eight, with an intro and coda added on. Outside of the introduction, first variation, and coda, no movement remains as Tchaikovsky wrote it:

  • Fitzenhagen replaced Variation II's original ending with that of Variation VI
  • Variation VII replaced Variation III
  • Variation V replaced Variation IV
  • Variation VI replaced Variation V and received the ending of Variation II
  • Variation IV replaced Variation VII
  • Fitzenhagen cut Variation VIII entirely.

The Fitzenhagen version became Intro, I, II/VI', VII, V, VI/II', III, IV, Coda (no VIII). At the very least, this forkles up transitions between movements and shows absolutely no understanding of Tchaikovsky's overall rhetorical design. Furthermore, Fitzenhagen published this hot mess before Tchaikovsky came to work on his original for publication. The composer hadn't really known what Fitzenhagen had done, due to tours outside Russia and his busy press of work in general. The cellist went so far as to lie to the publisher by claiming the composer had authorized the changes. Most of the revision is in Fitzenhagen's, not Tchaikovsky's, hand. Indeed, when the composer finally saw what Fitzenhagen had done, he angrily gave up working on the score altogether. "The Devil take it! Let it stand as it is."

I believe this is the only recording of Tchaikovsky's 1876 original. It's certainly the first. I've never heard it in concert. Almost all major cellists of the Twentieth Century and even today play the Fitzenhagen, probably because that's what they learned and because that was the only edition available until 1946. The original had to be revealed by X-ray, since Fitzenhagen had inked over Tchaikovsky's original. Still, it doesn't explain why they continue to use it. Believe me, if you've never heard the original, you've never heard the work. A crippled, limping, sectional score becomes a modest symphonic masterpiece.

The dedicatee of the Pezzo Capriccioso also made his alterations to the original score, but because the work is less complex than the Variations, the damage was minor. The work, a superior morceau essentially in the form of a Slavic dumka, explores Tchaikovsky's particular combo of tender melancholy and ardor, with whimsical changes between passages. This performance uses Tchaikovsky's original.

The remaining pieces consist of Tchaikovsky's own arrangements of original work. The Nocturne, a lament, comes from a suite of six piano pieces, op. 19. The two songs consist of "Legend: Christ Had a Garden" and "Was I Not a Blade of Grass." The first comes from Sixteen Songs for Children, op. 54, and the second from Seven Romances, op. 47. "Legend" has elements of Russian liturgical music, and the composer also arranged it for a cappella choir. "Grass" sings the sad song of a girl forced to marry an old man she doesn't love. I'm normally not a fan of Tchaikovsky's songs (I don't know many of them either), but these two are lovely, Tchaikovsky at his melodic best.

I don't know why Tchaikovsky's three string quartets languish. All magnificent and assured, they remain among the best Russian examples of the form. Musicologists have argued for Beethoven and Schubert as models, but the composer absorbed these influences and created something original. String quartets emphasize the Austro-German repertoire, so maybe that's the reason for the obscurity. Oh, well. The Andante Cantabile movement from the first quartet is undoubtedly the best known, having been arranged every which way. Here, it's Tchaikovsky's way. Nevertheless, do yourself a favor and seek out the complete string quartets.

Raphael Wallfisch may not have the boldest tone, but he's my kind of cellist. His phrasing is yummy and singing, and he understands what he plays. All of these performances display a great deal of poetry, without the usual sentimental goo that often accrues to Tchaikovsky performances. Geoffrey Simon and the English Chamber Orchestra match him. The entire disc is beautifully recorded and emphasizes the clarity of Tchaikovsky's orchestral textures. Wonderful.

NOTE: I recognize the premium price of this disc, made even more expensive by the short recording time. For me, it was more than worth it.

S.G.S. (May 2022)