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Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky Listeners' Diary - 17 February 2007

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

Paul Beecham
Paul Beecham
Well, what a week it’s been.

I wondered how to look back and sum up the experience of ‘total immersion’ morning, noon and night in such contrasting and complementary musical experiences.

It’s not easy. So what have been my high and low points?

I think I have to agree with my fellow diarist in that I found the extreme range of Stravinsky’s music not only surprising but also a little difficult to appreciate across the whole spectrum. When we got to the twelve-tone and serial aspects I’m afraid I was a bit of a lost soul. I may have a penchant for Messiaen but even he is melodic and harmonic compared to some offerings.

I must say that I did find real enjoyment in the discovery of some pieces, as I have mentioned before, particularly the four-hand version of The Rite of Spring. It would have been amazing to hear Debussy sight-read this with Stravinsky, apparently impeccably. This was true of many other piano works, particularly Tchaikovsky, or Tch’kovsky as Mr Hazlewood will have it.

I was not quite so taken by the Pianola version of Les Noces. I think this instrument works well in recreating original piano works as well as Liszt transcriptions (try the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens) or even Romantic Symphonies, but I don’t think choral music transfers that well; it was rather relentless.

I did enjoy the male-voice choir version of The Star-Spangled Banner by Stravinsky – it worked surprisingly well. Perhaps I’ll have to see if I can perform it somewhere, usually in the coals to Newcastle category.

I do have to share with you all by far the high-point of the whole week for me which was quite the most sublime experience. Perhaps timing made some difference here but who knows, it was still spine-tingling. When I heard the start of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostum late Thursday night it made my hair stand on end. I was listening on my hi-fi so the sense of space of the performance venue was beautifully recreated. I actually spent most of the time listening to this outstretched with the lights off. If I’d have had candles and incense to hand I would have been using them both. I was entranced and listened for the whole hour and a half.

What a sound they make. I say it was uniquely Russian but it was in fact the Bulgarian a capella choir but obviously very strongly in the Russian tradition. How can a group of people make a sound so like the deeply romantic organs of Aristide Cavaille-Coll in places like St Suplice and La Madeleine in Paris. The whole combination of vibrato and slight approximation of tuning, as Rosalind described in Russian orchestras, makes for such an emotional and powerfully rich sound.

When you learn that the recording is thirty years old you are not surprised that it has not been bettered in that time.

So I come to the end of my time as a diarist which I have enjoyed immensely. I think it has given me a focus that I may not have had otherwise. I would just have been a rather casual listener. It has certainly been a very positive experience and I hope you have enjoyed reading my musings.

So to end I have to confess to a fraudulent moment in my listening experience. I actually attended the live performance of the 1812 Overture at the Imperial War Museum on Friday evening. It was certainly an experience. It is not a piece I rush to hear, unlike my father, as I view it as the Russian equivalent of Land of Hope and Glory but this was at the very least an unusual setting and a different approach. Having the forces spread about the building was always going to be a logistical problem, as evidenced by the very end of the performance, but the use of the choirs was certainly effective and added much to the experience.

I say fraudulent as I wasn’t at home listening to my radio and capturing that experience in my diary – but I hope you will forgive me.

So who would we nominate for the next intensive study? Brahms? Rachmaninov? A ‘compare and contrast’ of nineteenth century French composers?

Am I just being partisan? I’m sure there are as many preferences out there as there are options.

We shall see.

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