Concert Notes: Letters from Tchaikovsky

MCO’s Letters from Tchaikovsky can be heard in Melbourne on Sunday 19 November at Melbourne Recital Centre and Thursday 23 November at Deakin Edge, Federation Square, and on tour around Victoria 14–25 November.

Anton Arensky
Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky Op 35a

Theme: Moderato
Variation I: Un poco più mosso
Variation II: Allegro non troppo
Variation III: Andantino tranquillo
Variation IV: Vivace
Variation V: Andante
Variation VI: Allegro con spirito
Variation VII: Andante con moto
Coda: Moderato

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861–1906) was a Russian composer, pianist, conductor and teacher. He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg Conservatory and upon graduating became professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory. It was here he came in contact with Tchaikovsky who gave him considerable encouragement. He held a number of conducting positions in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Among his compositions were symphonies, operas, piano music, songs, chamber music, a piano concerto and a violin concerto. Despite Rimsky-Korsakov’s comment in Chronicle of my Musical Life (1909) that Arensky ‘would soon be forgotten’ he is particularly remembered for his Piano Trio in D minor (1894), the piano miniatures, and the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky (1894). The Variations for strings was composed in 1894 and is based on Tchaikovsky’s Legend Op 54, No 5 (1883). Variations is an arrangement of the slow movement of Arensky’s second String Quartet Op 35. Following the statement of the theme there are seven variations and a coda.

Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich
Three Fantastic Dances Op 5 (arr Keith Crellin for string orchestra)

I. March
II. Waltz
III. Polka

Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906–1975) is one of the towering figures of twentieth century composition. His 15 symphonies are landmarks in the symphonic literature and his chamber music provides a comparable evolution through a range of genres, particularly the string quartet. His compositions for piano spanned his life and include sonatas, preludes, preludes and fugues, and collections of short works.

The Three Fantastic Dances Op 5 is among the earliest works of Shostakovich. They were composed in 1922 and first performed in 1925. These short dances are packed with ideas and intent. The opening March is marked Allegretto. This is then contrasted with the quiet dream-like Andantino waltz. The final dance, Polka is another Allegretto movement and playfully provides a taste of the dance movements that were to become synonymous with the composer.

The arranger of this work is Keith Crellin OAM who was head of the String Department and conductor in residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide from 2001–2015. He is the Artistic Director of the Adelaide Youth Orchestra.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op 42 (arr Nicholas Buc for violin and string orchestra)

I. Méditation
II. Scherzo
III. Mélodie

Album for the Young Op 39 (arr Rostislav Dubinsky for string orchestra)

XIII. Waltz
I. Morning Prayer
V. March of the Wooden Soldiers
XX. Baba Yaga (The Witch)
XIV. Polka
XXIII. The Organ-Grinder Sings
XVII. German Song

Serenade for Strings Op 48

I. Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo — Allegro moderato
II. Valse: Moderato — Tempo di valse
III. Élégie: Larghetto elegiaco
IV. Finale (Tema russo): Andante — Allegro con spirito

The Russian composer Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was, according to theorist Boris Asaf′yev, the first composer of a new Russian type: fully professional, who firmly assimilated traditions of Western European symphonic mastery. In a deeply original, personal and national style he united the symphonic thought of Beethoven and Schumann with the work of Glinka. His work stands as a testament to the developments in Russia over the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The works in the program are all composed around the time following Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova and their separation. It was the time of the composition of the Fourth Symphony and the opera Yevgeny Onegin.

Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Memory of a dear place) was composed between March and May 1878. Around this time he also completed his Six Romances Op. 38 and had fully sketched the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Souvenir d’un lieu cher was originally written for violin and piano. The first movement was completed in Clarens, Switzerland, where he had completed his Violin Concerto. The three movement work was published in 1879. Alexander Glazunov published an arrangement in 1896 for violin and orchestra. The arrangement in today’s program is by the Australian composer and conductor Nicholas Buc.

In a letter to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikvosky wrote: “In my opinion, the first of these is the best, but it gave me the most trouble; it is called Méditation and is to be played Andante. The second is a very brisk scherzo, and [when composing] the third – Chant sans paroles…I experienced an indescribable melancholy, which stayed with me even as I sat down to write this; until I saw the lilacs still in full bloom, the grass still long, and the roses only just starting to blossom!”

Album pour enfants: 24 pièces faciles (à la Schumann) (Children’s Album: 24 Easy Pieces) Op 39 was composed between February and October 1878. Tchaikovsky was explicit in his acknowledgement of Schumann’s Album für die Jugend and yet unlike Schumann’s collection these pieces were written for young players. In a letter of 30 April 1878 to Nadezhda von Meck, the composer wrote: “A while ago I thought that it would not be a bad idea to make a small contribution to the stock of children’s musical literature, which is very modest. I want to create a series of little individual pieces just for children, and with an attractive title, like Schumann’s”.

The technical demands and delightful play of melody, rhythm and texture along with the subject matter identified in the titles make them ideal pieces for young people to play. The collection was written for the composer’s seven-year old nephew, Vladimir (Bob) Davïdov.

The arranger of this set was the Russian-American violinist Rostislav Dubinsky (1923–1997), the founding first violinist of the Borodin Quartet and later the violinist of the Borodin Trio. He was Professor of Chamber Music at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington.

Serenade for Strings Op 48 was composed in 1880 around the same time as the 1812 Overture. The work was first performed at a private concert in December 1880 at the Moscow Conservatory and received its public premiere in October 1881 in St Petersburg, and then repeated in Moscow the following January. It is dedicated to Karl Albrecht, a cellist and colleague of the composer at the Moscow Conservatory.

Tchaikovsky uses the name Serenade as in the multi-movement form adopted by Mozart. The first movement Pezzo in forma di sonatina is written in the style of a classical sonatina. The Allegro is preceeded by a chordal Andante that reappears at the end of the movement and again in the coda of the final movement providing a sense of unity to the work. The Valse is one of Tchaikovsky’s most enduring melodies. The third movement is a reflective and inward looking elegy. The Finale with its subtitle ‘Russian theme’ commences with a slow introduction and moves into the spirited Allegro.

The Serenade is an exquisite landmark in the string repertoire. Tchaikovsky’s other major essay for strings is the Souvenir de Florence Op 70, which also follows a four-movement structure.

*David Forrest