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Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky Listeners' Diary - 13 February 2007

Two Radio 3 listeners are keeping an online diary throughout The Tchaikovsky Experience.

Rosalind Porter
Rosalind Porter
I have to agree partly with my diary colleague Paul that the piano pieces of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky have not started to attract my interest as much as the other musical genres. However, the exception was Monday night with the programme featuring Peter Donohoe and piano music by Stravinsky and I suspect that was because we had Peter in the studio to provide the performer's perspective. This is undoubtedly the other big plus point of such an intense week of programming. I'm lucky to work in an environment where there are many fine musicians around and I know very well from personal experience how much insight one can gain into music from the briefest of conversations and the interview with Peter was a prime example. Primarily it was his comments about how the Stravinsky Sonata possessed the same sense of 'fragility' as Bach. When he came to play the piece, one could immediately understand what he meant and it enabled a far deeper immediate appreciation of the music - inviting further exploration in the future. Thanks, Peter. I am certainly keeping my ears open for these dialogues with musicians as we head through the week.

Additionally, let's not forget the truly vast array of background information available on the Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky Experience web-site, and I'd particularly commend it to anyone who is feeling a bit overwhelmed by the wall-to-wall programming and not sure where best to concentrate or even start their listening. It is rather scary to consider that not so many years ago, in order to find all this material, we'd have to spend quite a few sessions in a really good music library researching multiple media sources. The younger generation of listeners now takes all this for granted! Rather than provide a long list of links, which only serves to reflect my own personal interests, I'd strongly advocate simply spending an hour or so browsing the material available. Though having said that, it would be a huge shame if anyone missed the 'Stravinsky Bites' pages as they has some fascinating archive sound clips, not least by Stravinsky himself:

Listen to Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky audio clips.

If you are inquisitive like me, you will end up becoming irresistibly drawn towards a piece of music by the browsing process and find yourself making a date this week to catch the broadcast. My 'must hear' addition to my previous Top Ten is Stravinsky's composition for orchestra and chorus: 'Le Roi des étoiles' which is timed for 2230 on Tuesday night. Apparently it was not performed for 28 years after its composition because of what was regarded at that time as an impossibly complex score. It includes bi-tonal writing (meaning that the music is theoretically in two different keys at the same time) and requires a large orchestra including 8 horns and quadruple wind for only 6 or so minutes of music. The piece was dedicated to Debussy, who appears to have been rather bemused by the score, perceptively deducing that it was far ahead of its time. Sounds fascinating!

After his fine performance of Manfred on Saturday, I decided to make a point of listening in to the Symphony at Six strand to catch the rest of Maestro Noseda's series of Tchaikovsky's symphonies. This has proved to be a rewarding decision with insightful interpretations and excellent playing from the BBC Philharmonic. Once again one does regret the fact that these first 3 symphonies (plus Manfred) don't get more concert performances. Why are we so stuck in our programming ways? Is it caused by our continued obsession with the extraneous non-musical tragic side of his life and its perceived embodiment in the later works? If Tchaikovsky had been able and allowed to settle down into a stable relationship and died a later, natural death, would we have perhaps inherited a wider, more balanced view of his music? On the other hand, if this had been the case would he have written such wonderfully angst-filled emotionally volatile works? Who knows, but it is fun to speculate on such matters just as we did during the Mozart year when one couldn't help wondering what kind of music a 64 year old Wolfgang would have been capable of. I'd be interested to know what other listeners make of the earlier symphonic works, especially if you weren't previously familiar with them.

I managed to listen again to the Stravinsky choral works including 'Babel', Symphony of Psalms and 'Threni' but why on earth someone felt it was prudent to shove in a performance of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony in the middle of this fascinating progression of choral compositions, I will never know! Talk about totally destroying a logical musical framework and the whole mood of the sequence, this was a really crass programming decision and not what I would have expected in this enterprise - whoever was responsible should definitely go take a seat in the now infamous R3 message board Naughty Corner. I haven't had time to put my thoughts on paper about these Stravinsky pieces, but will endeavour to do so tomorrow if I can.

Henrietta Almond

Ros, you speculate on what would have happened if Tchaikovsly had had a happy marriage, and if Mozart had lived a long life. In the case of Tchaikovsky I think the problem was highlighted by the BBC 2 drama-documentaries. The fundamental error there was to concentrate on only one facet of the Tchaikovsky 'story' - coming to terms with (and fatally, trying socially to overcome) his homosexuality. Yes, the private passions so often appear to be the engine of the music. But I always think it's a mistake to see music exclusively through the composer's life-story: as a child, I was starting to get to know Tchaikovsky's music even before I knew what sexuality was! To me, the music has always communicated powerfully on it own - growing up, it said 'this is Russia' to me, more than it said anything else. And not knowing what was 'fashionable' music, Tchaikovsly has never been out of fashion with me. Shame about the TV progs: you learned almost nothing about the music and how he wrote it, more interesting to me than 'why'.

Rosalind Porter

Henrietta, thanks for your comments - I think my point was slightly misunderstood as I was speculating whether we would have loaded less non-musical baggage onto some of Tchaikovsky's works if he'd lived a less turbulent life, or indeed if we didn't know so much about his relationship problems. Maybe the view we absorb of the music when we are young and not yet aware of these background events is a much more honest and realistic one? When studying a piece from the point of view of a performer, I've always tried to concentrate solely on the music, whatever the composer. But to ignore the reality of such emotional influences completely would also be a mistake, though I agree the television series did rather push things way too far. What do you think of BBC Radio 3's approach?

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