Howard's Realization of Tchaikovsky's Piano Sonatas includin
Hexameron | 11/15/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Tchaikovsky's solo piano output is admittedly not his forte. Much of it is confined to the salon and only a few substantial pieces emerge, such as The Seasons, Dumka, and Romance. Consequently, most music writers and listeners dismiss the entirety of his solo piano output with much criticism. Some of his piano pieces are banal, but the piano sonatas are of a different and higher-quality stock, often well-constructed, bursting with melody, and generally engrossing. The present Helios release is an extremely valuable addition to the Tchaikovsky discography. Few listeners either know or appreciate Tchaikovsky's piano sonatas, but fewer have heard his unfinished Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor (first movement) which is fleshed out and given its world-premiere recording here by the prolific Leslie Howard.
Superficially, Tchaikovsky's two published piano sonatas sound generically Romantic, as if produced from the mold of Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt. The Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor (1865) was written during Tchaikovsky's last year at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and is quite derivative, but still a font of attractive ideas. The second "Andante" movement is dreamy and fragile in the manner of Schumann, and floats in a realm of soft pianissimo, which Howard conveys artfully. Strangely, the opening motive of the "Scherzo" movement sounds exactly like the beginning of the "Spring" "Largo" movement from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I believe the greatest moment of this piano sonata is the last movement, an impassioned virtuosic powerhouse à la furious Chopin.
Tchaikovsky's Piano Sonata in G major Op. 37 (1879) is occasionally recorded and performed, but Howard's rendition is far superior to most, including even Richter's version. The first movement is significant for its length (11 minutes) and unconventional use of the "Dies Irae" in the thematic material. Unlike some of his contemporaries and later composers, Tchaikovsky's "Dies Irae" motive is used to generate a cheery and not austere melody. In the next movement, a melancholy "Andante", Tchaikovsky borrows from Chopin; the opening theme is reminiscent of Chopin's Prelude No. 4 in E minor. The "Finale" of this sonata, a real perpetuum mobile movement, glimmers with inspiration and Romantic spirit. One of the alternating sections in this Rondo is particularly memorable for its passionate proclamations and drama. Other virtuosic phrases and cadential extensions sound so incredibly like Alkan that I wonder if Tchaikovsky had examined this French composer's piano music.
Last but decidedly not least is Howard's realization of the unfinished "Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor", which is actually my favorite piece from this disc. I obviously don't have the unfinished score to make an evaluation on just how much Tchaikovsky is here and how much was filled in. Rather than speculating, I'll rely on Howard's explanation: "Tchaikovsky's manuscript consists of 172 bars of music: a sonata exposition without introduction, and with a first-time bar leading to its repetition. The present completion involved constructing a short return to the principal theme, the reworking of the transition and some slight varying of the second subject, and the writing of a short coda from a cancelled transition passage in the manuscript, with a nod to the coda of another early Tchaikovsky piece, the Scherzo à la russe, Op 1 No. 1. The aim throughout was, of course, to add as little new material as possible. The completed sonata movement, which runs to 338 bars of music lasting about ten minutes in performance, makes available to the public the work of a confident young Tchaikovsky..." Indeed, it's hard to believe that this fiery allegro akin to Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy was written by the budding Tchaikovsky.
Bottom line: Tchaikovsky's piano sonatas won't dethrone Brahms's or Chopin's, but certainly deserve to be showcased along side Schumann's or Grieg's. Tchaikovsky's piano sonatas are unabashedly derivative, but his gift for melody and exciting narrative is pervasive throughout each, including the unfinished Piano Sonata No. 1, which is exceptional thanks to Howard's craftsmanship and impressive performance."
Vintage Tchaikovsky More than Worth the Price
Aronne | 12/02/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Leslie Howard's playing is magnificent and assured. Never does he let the Grand Sonata seem thick, or the second sonata in C-sharp minor sound harsh. Both works are done ample justice, with fabulous sound to compliment Howard's fine achievement.
Do not be in doubt about Tchaikovsky's ability as a composer of piano music. This CD is hard-core Tchaikovsky, wonderful music that is bound to titillate the musical palette of anyone who enjoys Romantic era piano music.
Only one movement survives of the incomplete first Piano Sonata in F minor (1863/4), completed convincingly by Howard. As far as I can tell from the notes, he did not have to add very much.
The second Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor (1865), published posthumously as Op. 80, is (in my opinion) just as good as the Grand Sonata. The first movement grabs the attention immediately with as series of delightful minor chords. The A section of the scherzo will be familiar to Tchaikovsians from his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13. The movement works as well on the piano as it does in an orchestral form.
The third, "Grand" Piano Sonata in G major (1878), which shares Op. 37 with The Seasons, was the only sonata Tchaikovsky published during his lifetime. It hardly needs an apology. Regardless of what critics say about it being indebted to Schumann, this is solid Tchaikovsky, no doubt about it.
The composer's consistent invention and pianist's consistent performance makes this CD a sure investment for any Tchaikovsky fan."