Saturday, 3 March 2012

Tchaikovsky – the reputation they tried to destroy

How many people love Tchaikovsky’s music? Whether it’s the symphonies, the first piano concerto, the violin concerto or the ballet scores most people wouldn’t think twice about accepting his music as great music.

However, over the years certain elements of the critical classical music world have tried to destroy his reputation by describing his music as vulgar. I once heard the comment that to listen to a symphony by Tchaikovsky was to have a lesson in orchestration. But even that comment, as accurate as it may be, could be construed as a backhanded insult.

Even in his own time Tchaikovsky suffered severe criticism. When he played his First Piano Concerto through to Nikolai Rubinstein, Rubinstein said it was bad, vulgar, fragmented, clumsy, unplayable and, in places, stolen from other composers. According to Rubinstein only two or three pages were worth keeping. You can’t get a worse opinion than that. Yet this very concerto is probably the most popular concerto ever.

Of course Tchaikovsky is not the only one to have suffered from musical snobbery. As recently as 1954 the music of his compatriot Rachmaninov was described in Groves as being ‘…monotonous in texture ... consisting mainly of artificial and gushing tunes.’

The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi also suffers from the same attitude presumably because of his richly orchestrated (he did, after all, study under Rimsky Korsakov) and sometimes flamboyant music.

Even the great Liszt himself wasn’t immune from such criticism. I have a 1925 edition of a book on Liszt by Frederick Corder, a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, who said of Liszt ‘…the themes are often very beautiful, but they stick out like the almonds in a Dundee cake, they fail to cohere…’ Why on earth then did Corder bother to write a book about Liszt? He seems to have thought of him as merely a great pianist, given that he pretty much writes off Liszt as a teacher.

Our own Vaughan Williams is still misunderstood by some because of the damage done to his reputation earlier in his life by being considered a pastoral composer and a member of the so called ‘cow pat’ school. Constant Lambert remarked that VW’s Pastoral Symphony reminded him of "a cow looking over a gate." Stravinsky allegedly said that it was like ‘staring at cow for a long time.’ Yet this work was very much VW’s response to his experiences in France during the First World War. It certainly isn’t comfortable music. Then, of course, there’s the 4th Symphony – try calling that ‘cow pat’ music.

But to return to Tchaikovsky, despite all the attempts to destroy his reputation he is probably one of the most listened to classical composers today.

These thoughts came to me quite strongly when listening to a marvellous re-issue of the symphonies by Newton Classics .


I have listened to many different cycles of the Tchaikovsky symphonies including Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on EMI/Virgin , Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on EMI , as well as Mariss Jansons’ terrific cycle with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos .

So how does this newcomer hold up? Well it’s not a newcomer at all as Igor Markevitch (1912-1983) made these recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960’s and what terrific performances they are.

Even if the opening movement of number one (a particular favourite of mine) is taken slower than I’m used to, it is overall a fine performance. But, progressing through these performances, the fire and poetry of them just seems to get better and better.

The recordings from the 1960’s are remarkably good, with a clarity that lets the brass sound out without any shrillness. String sound is particularly good with next to no edginess to the sound.

The only small disadvantage is that, in order to fit them on four discs, symphonies two and five are split over two discs. Whilst I wouldn’t be without Janson’s superb cycle, I certainly wouldn’t part with these wonderful performances. Any Tchaikovsky lover should get this inexpensive set.

So what about Tchaikovsky’s reputation? Is he a great composer? Well after listening to these four discs in just two sittings I would be hard pressed to come to any other conclusion.

In my next blog I want to move to the question of period instrument performances. Do we really need them?

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