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Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky Listeners' Diary - 14 February 2007

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

Paul Beecham
Paul Beecham
Oh dear, the perils of over-managed expectations!

I was really looking forward to the selection of choral pieces last night and tuned in expectantly to hear a selection of works completely unknown to me. I thought this would be a banquet of tasty morsels never before sampled. Unfortunately it just didn’t do it for me.

The Stravinsky Mass was nice as were the Tchaikovsky 6 Sacred Pieces but I was not overwhelmed. The Stravinsky Cantata however left me wondering what was going on as it seemed completely formless. It also reinforced the problem this type of 'batch programming' gives us in having no idea of the length or structure of a piece. The Coronation Cantata was pretty ordinary and the best word I could come up with was municipal! It went on in much the same vein throughout; chorus, solo, chorus, solo, chorus, ra-ra-ra!

Then I just had to stay up for the major discovery piece for me, the Seventh Symphony (or was it really the sixth, or the fifth and a half?). How would this compare to the eternal sixth in tone, mood and passion? Well, I don’t think it did at all. At times I was reminded of Elgar or Brahms and the final movement seemed more like a concerto for cymbals and orchestra than a symphony. I don't think it's ever going to eclipse the sixth in the listeners' hearts and certainly not mine!

So what have I learned from this? The main thing is 'nothing ventured, nothing gained', but also have realistic expectations so that you are more often pleasantly surprised than disappointed. At the very least it has whetted my appetite to discover many more things I have not experienced before knowing I will find treasures still.

P.S. I'm still loving all the piano pieces and the piano versions of other works, played by some great pianists. Plenty more to come I know.

Rosalind Porter
Rosalind Porter
Tonight I was completely blown away by Stravinsky's 'Le Roi des étoiles'. The music was a real revelation and I'd love to get hold of the score to explore this thought provoking music further. Whilst only a few minutes long it took off into a sound-world radically different from anything I have heard by Stravinsky so far this week, choral or orchestral. The words possessed a religious undertone but personally I felt the music was pushing into something rather more mystical. Boulez is the perfect conductor for repertoire such as this. I have to confess that sometimes I hate trying to express thoughts about music in words, as somehow it inevitably seems to lessen the musical 'experience'. But I'm going to take another listen again to 'Le Roi des étoiles' and perhaps in my summing up at the end of the week try harder to explain why this made such a huge musical impact on me.

For me the jury's still out on the other group of Stravinsky vocal pieces I listened again to. In 'Babel' the orchestral writing appeared far more complex, original and typically Stravinskyian than the vocal writing and this was unexpected to me, I was hoping somehow to find something rather more demanding intellectually in the vocal line. Apparently this was the first time Stravinsky wrote a vocal piece to English words and I'd go as far as to say that this inexperience is noticeable. Using a narrator can be a powerful device, but it didn't really come off in this particular recording and I felt a little short-changed. It is surprising how short the work is, and in hindsight it doesn't really gain the tension that one might have expected from such a subject matter. Though with a more powerful narrator, perhaps that would have been improved and I would have been left with a more positive impression of the piece. I think I might look out another recording of this work and see if it changes my first impressions.

Once again, one of the highlights of the Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky Experience are the unexpected speech inserts from a wide variety of musical people. Such as the composer George Benjamin enthusing so vividly about the music to Symphony of Psalms, certainly whetting the appetite for more focussed listening with his interesting comments. Again one has to make note of the fact that the orchestra is far busier and more complex than the chorus - which to these ears at least sounded comparatively conservative in sound and difficulty despite some demanding harmony. Coming fresh to this repertoire I'd been expecting something quite different in the way he would treat voices, to be honest I was a little disappointed until 'Abraham and Isaac', not to mention 'Le Roi des étoiles'. It is surprising that one composer could have such a diverse style of chorus writing.

Stravinsky's 'Abraham and Isaac' was written in Hebrew and right from the start of the music it was clear that he fell in love with the language. As Oliver Knussen eloquently explained, (a huge help in gaining a greater appreciation of the music) Stravinsky approached languages from the point of view of what he could do with the sound of them. It was interesting to learn that he annoyed the poets that he set because he was more interested in the sound than the sense of the words. This was a wonderful recording by David Wilson-Johnson who handled the elaborate and ornate vocal part with ease and after some maybe not so tip-top accompaniment in 'Babel' and Symphony of Psalms, it was an ear-opener to experience the pin-point accuracy of the London Sinfonietta. They only served to reinforce the seemingly much closer relationship between words and music, and in comparison to other chorus works I have been listening to - more intensity too. Another score I'd like to explore at a later point. Are there any other chorus enthusiasts with opinions about the performances heard so far?

I don't know if it is just me but I've never been a terribly keen fan of the female voices of the BBC Singers, somehow a bit too much vibrato here and there amongst them. The specially recorded Tchaikovsky items sounded interesting but I wonder how much of a 'Russian' sound we were actually hearing and whether it might not have been a better idea to actually record a real, live Russian chorus. You need to taste the vodka in the singing! However, we certainly had a good double shot of authenticity in the wonderfully named Moscow Radio Large Symphony Orchestra and Choir, in Tchaikovsky's 'Moscow - Coronation Cantata' - 'Large' they most definitely sounded and it is always a thrill to hear a Russian orchestra at full tilt!

What am I looking forward to next? Well, as a violinist, it has to be that thought-provoking pairing of the Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky violin concerti today - Oistrakh plays Tchaikovsky and Hilary Hahn the Stravinsky, I can't wait! (Though I'm not forgetting my 'must hear' of Heifetz later in the week…) Two works posing musical and technical challenges in very different ways - the perfect comparison. Any other violinists want to contribute thoughts on these concerti, anyone reading who has played both works?

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