STRAVINSKY: Pulcinella. Le baiser de la fee (The Fairy's Kiss)
Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano; Robin Leggate, tenor; Mark Beeley, bass; Philharmonia Orch (Pulcinella); London Symphony Orch/Robert Craft, cond.
NAXOS 8.557503 (B) TT: 78:23

BORIS TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto. Clarinet Concerto. Signs of the Zodiac.
Olga Solovieva, pianist; Pavel Alfyorov, double bass; Anton Prischepa, clarinet; Irina Goncharova, harpsichord; Yana Ivanilova, soprano; Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orch/Timur Mynbaev, cond.
NAXOS 8.557727 (B) TT: 70:06

The Two Tchaikovskys on these discs were not related and musically poles apart, yet distinctive personalities – the world-cherished one who lived from 1840 to 1893, a special favorite of Stravinsky – and Boris, born in 1925 who died in 1996. Pyotr Ilich is represented in Stravinsky’s 1928 homage, the full title of which (translated into English) is The Fairy’s Kiss, Allegorical Ballet in Four Tableaux, Inspired by the Muse of Tchaikovsky. The version here is the complete 42-minute work (rather than the 25-minute Divertimento for orchestra that I.S. made in 1934, or the violin and piano adaptation Stravinsky wrote for himself and Samuel Dushkin in 1932), and an extraordinary charmer it is. The Tchaikovsky materials incorporated are youthful songs and piano pieces, yet none of them quoted verbatim but woven into a tapestry based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a child abducted by a fairy who kisses his forehead and then abandons him for 20 years, after which time she reclaims him for eternity in “a land beyond time and place” where, this time, she kisses the sole of his foot. As conductor Robert Craft writes in his program note, “the young man of course is Tchaikovsky himself, the Fairy his Mephistophelean muse. The ending of Stravinsky’s homage to his beloved forbear [is] one of the most moving he ever wrote.” Amen. This recording with the London Symphony Orchestra as well as the conductor on their mettle was made in January 1995, and originally issued on Koch International.

Pulcinella of 1920, written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was based on alleged pieces by Pergolesi (1710-36) that the impresario had found in Naples, whereas less than half of the 19 numbers turned out to be music by the short-lived native of Jesi who studied in Naples. The rest came instead from transcriptions in the British museum of baroque pieces by Pergolesi’s contemporaries. Stravinsky scored the work for 33 instruments, including a modern trombone (not yet “invented”), and three singers; the original was choreographed for himself in title role by Leonid Myassin (Frenchified as Léonide Massine), Diaghilev’s inamorato after Nijinsky’s withdrawal into marriage and madness. The characters, if not the plot, are commedia dell’arte staples, and the music has enjoyed an independent life in the concert hall. Of Craft’s soloists in this 1997 recording, likewise on Koch International originally, mezzo Diana Montague is clearly the superior vocalist. The orchestra is the Philharmonia, and while it validates its suavity, the players seem unmoved otherwise: in other words a “sessions” performance despite Craft’s urging and their successful collaboration in other works. Whether or not you already have a Pulcinella, this third installment is a must for Stravinskians as well as Tchaikovskyites, thanks to the full Fairy’s Kiss. The recorded sound, not least, is vivid indeed in both works – better than some made a decade later. One ought to add, however, that in 1995 Naxos issued a performance of Pulcinella recorded two years earlier (coupled with Danses concertantes) featuring tenor Ian Bostridge, with Stefan Sanderling conducting the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. I don’t know it (wasn’t even aware of its existence until checking the internet) but it is still listed as available. Craft’s version is three minutes shorter, but the prior version – after all, recorded only four years earlier – has my curiosity whetted even if my wallet says, “Nay, you don’t like the music that much.”

Boris Tchaikovsky is a century more advanced stylistically than Pyotr Ilich, although his final period – of which the 1971 Piano Concerto is an early example – shared Stravinsky’s fascination with Russian folk music. But Boris T. took a different approach, although Stravinsky’s Les Noces could be cited as an influence: he dealt in blocks of tonal sound – one could say akin to the Reich-Riley-Glass school in the U.S. except that Boris T’s ostinati are rhythmically varied as well as the bases for themes and structures throughout his 35-minute Concerto. It bears more than passing mention that Shostakovich, Myaskovsky and Shebalin were among his teachers, and that the first-named along with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich were Boris T’s champions. The five-movement Piano Concerto begins with iterated single notes that pianist Olga Solovyeva dispatches with sheer bravado, matched by the orchestra under the sympathetic and energizing leadership of Timur Mynbaev. I found myself as interested on a third hearing as I was initially. The recording made during May 2005 is close-up, expertly balanced and emphatic without sounding dry or gimmicky. The Clarinet Concerto is a much earlier work from Boris T’s 33rd year (1957), but it begins with a gentleness that carried over to the slow movement of the Piano Concerto. In its 11-minutes overall, however, the three-movement Clarinet Concerto ends saucily, virtually a tip-of-the-hat to Shostakovich, whom the younger composer vigorously defended when the Zdanov kangaroo court of 1948 broke the spirit of Myaskovsky, and made Prokofiev shockingly aware that the USSR he returned to a decade earlier was a police state that would not brook any breaking of its rigid rules “for the good of the people.” The most provocative work on this disc, however, is a four-song cycle based on poems by Fyodor Tyutchev, Aleksander Blok, Marina Tsvetaeva and Nicolai Zabolotsky, spanning 1803 to 1958 and set chronologically – “a link of human experience through the ages [and] a sense of timeless continuity of past, present and future, rather like the constellation of stars in the zodiac itself.” Set for soprano soloist (Yana Ivanilova, who is perfectly cast), harpsichord and strings in 1974, Signs of the Zodaic is music both lyrical and mystical, in no way connected to horoscopes or the planets as Gustav Holst characterized them in his orchestral suite. The texts are printed in the program along with a valuable program note by Louis Blois and the announcement of a not-for-profit Boris Tchaikovsky Society founded at Moscow in 2002, open to persons of all nationalities. I’d rather join this after the experience of Naxos’ introduction to these three durable works than hear another symphony, concerto or ballet by Pyotr Ilich. And while I don’t know the disc, Chandos has three works – The Wind of Siberia, Sebastopol Symphony, and Music for Orchestra – conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev on 10299, issued last year. Must check the wallet again.

R.D. (February 2006)