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Tchaikovsky's Chamber Works

The Duomo, Florence
Key works
  • String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 11
  • Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 30
  • String Sextet, Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70

Tchaikovsky's chamber works account for a relatively small portion of his output and punctuate three phases of his creative life: the three string quartets were composed within several years of each other between 1871 and 1876, the Piano Trio served as a memorial to the pianist Nikolay Rubinstein in 1881-2 and the String Sextet known as the Souvenir de Florence dates from 1890. Yet their emotional range is characteristically wide.

The First Quartet reflects the classical side of Tchaikovsky's nature which extends even to the elegant containment of a Ukrainian folksong in the Andante cantabile, familiar not just in its quartet form but in a number of different arrangements including one for cello and orchestra. Higher emotional temperatures typical of Tchaikovsky's more anguished utterances return in the slow movements of the second and third quartets, though classicism is restored in two wholesome finales. The Piano Trio begins with elegiac grief in a large-scale first movement, but restores massive good humour in the ensuing Theme and Variations, commemorating Nikolay Rubinstein's virtuosity in the elaborate writing for piano. Tchaikovsky marked optional cuts in the later stages, but the original scope only makes the return of the opening elegy at the end of the trio all the more devastating.

The vivacity of the Souvenir de Florence, an irrepressibly tuneful gift to the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, shows that the more robust aspect of Tchaikovsky's creativity was far from exhausted in his last years. His only other mature chamber works are the three pieces for violin and piano that make up the Souvenir d'un lieu cher, the first of which originally served as the slow movement to his Violin Concerto before it was replaced by the Canzonetta we usually hear today.

Notes © BBC/David Nice

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