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Itzhak Perlman Plays Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 3 in D Major, “Polish,” Op. 29
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

First performance by the RPO.

Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies lay under the shadow of the enormously popular second set of three for many years. Gradually they have come into their own, partly because of a reaction to the over-exposure of their siblings, partly due to a belated recognition of their own considerable virtues: melodiousness, instrumental sparkle, and sheer charm.

His lack of self-confidence resulted in the creation of the No. 1 stretching over several years. Following isolated performances of individual movements, the full premiere took place in 1868. It drew a highly positive reception. Tchaikovsky remained unsatisfied, however. He revised it repeatedly before it was published. He gave it an overall nickname, "Winter Dreams," and labelled its first two movements Dreams of a Winter Journey and Land of Desolation, Land of Mists. This taste for writing symphonies (and other music) with a programmatic element would remain with him throughout his career.

He began Symphony No. 2 in 1872, while vacationing at his sister’s estate in Ukraine. He heard a great deal of folk singing during his stay. That inspired him to include authentic Ukrainian folk melodies in three of the four movements. Although the premiere in February of the following year won great success, he once again had doubts about his new symphony. Seven years later, he revised it extensively, the changes including an almost completely new first movement.
He composed Symphony No. 3 in the interim between two of his most enduringly popular works: his first examples of the piano concerto, and his first ballet, Swan Lake. He spent the summer of 1875 visiting the country estates owned by two friends. The atmosphere proved highly congenial for creation. The symphony took shape quickly and easily. Unlike the first two, it required no revisions. Perhaps he already had Swan Lake in mind while composing it, as many of its themes have a dance-like quality. Responding to that element, the great Russian/American choreographer, George Balanchine, set the third symphony (minus the opening movement) as the final section of his three-act ballet, Jewels, in 1967.

Nikolay Rubinstein conducted the Third Symhony’s premiere, in Moscow on November 19, 1875. It made only a modest impression. Since it is the only one of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies to be centred in a major key rather than a minor one, it has an overall lightness and grace that the others are missing. It is the least “personal” and dramatic of the symphonies and thus the least-often performed. What it may lack in passion it makes up for by providing superlative entertainment.

Following the precedents of Beethoven’s Sixth, the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, it has five movements rather than four, another quality through which it resembles a ballet or concert suite. It sports two scherzo-like movements rather than one.

The opening section of the first movement belies the symphony’s overall nature. Marked to be performed “in the style of a funeral march,” it casts a spell of darkness and gloom. This mood evaporates instantly with the arrival of a vigorous and joyful theme to launch the movement proper. Solo oboe introduces the gently melancholy second theme. Tchaikovsky develops both subjects with considerable breadth and almost rambunctious energy.

The first of the two scherzo-like sections is the jewel of the score. Marked “Alla tedesca” (“In German Style”) it is a sweet, lilting homage to the ländler, a mid-European folk dance from which the waltz evolved. The slow third movement presents an interlude of thoughtful sobriety, of elegiac mourning. The second scherzo a fleet-footed creation bedecked with delicate touches of orchestration. The finale is an alternately vigorous and solemn example of the Polonaise, a regal Polish court dance. When the English conductor, Sir August Manns, introduced this symphony to London in 1899, this movement inspired him to label the piece as a whole the “Polish” Symphony – and the subtitle stuck.

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

First performed by RPO on November 17, 1932; Guy Fraser Harrison, conductor.  Last performed on November 21, 2009; Hannu Lintu, conductor.

For a composer as immersed in lyricism as Tchaikovsky, it is surprising that he wrote so little music featuring that songful instrument, the violin (though he does make magnificent use of it in his orchestral scores). He created just four solo works; three with orchestra: Sérénade mélancolique (Melancholy Serenade, 1875); Valse-scherzo (1877); and this full-scale concerto (1878); plus the suite with piano, Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Souvenir of a Dear Place, also 1878).

He composed the concerto while visiting Clarens, Switzerland. Dissatisfied with the original slow movement (it ended up as the opening section, Meditation, of the Souvenir), he replaced it with the one known today. He then sent the concerto to Leopold Auer, the distinguished Hungarian soloist who had commissioned the Sérénade, hoping that it, too, would enter his repertoire. To Tchaikovsky’s horror, Auer  pronounced it “unplayable” and “too revolutionary.”

Crushed, Tchaikovsky shelved the concerto. Some time later, a German soloist, Adolf Brodsky, expressed an interest in it, then spent the better part of two years preparing to give the premiere. That took place at a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, Hans Richter conducting, on December 4, 1881. The audience loved Brodsky’s playing, but not the piece. The press, led by the arch conservative critic Eduard Hanslick, heaped abuse upon it, too. He wrote, “For a while the concerto has proportion, is musical, and is not without genius, but soon savagery gains the upper hand and lords it to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue. The slow movement almost wins us. But it breaks off abruptly to make way for a brutal and wretched finale. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks to the ear.”

Despite this initial hostility, the concerto lost little time in establishing itself as a concert favorite. Brodsky’s continuing advocacy had much to do with this. In gratitude, Tchaikovsky changed his original dedication plan, switching it from Auer to Brodsky. Auer later changed his view, and became one of its most persuasive champions. He passed on his revised opinion to his pupils, including Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, who became superb interpreters of the concerto, too.

It is considerably less dramatic and more lightly-scored than his only previous full concerto, Piano Concerto No. 1. In breadth of conception and richness of contents, the opening movement is virtually a complete concerto in itself. Since both principal themes are lyrical rather than dramatic in character, Tchaikovsky achieves the necessary contrast by alternating lightly scored passages for violin and orchestra, with more forceful sections scored for orchestra alone.

Woodwinds introduce the wistful, elegant second movement. The soloist here plays with a mute, giving the instrument a veiled, restrained sound most appropriate to the music. The vivacious, folk-flavored dance rhythms of the finale burst in abruptly. Two warm contrasting ideas are subjected to elaborate presentation. The solo violin then leads off an exhilarating chase which brings the concerto to a dashing close.

© 2012 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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