Monday, July 08, 2002

[7/8/2012] Tchaikovsky's home away from home, or perhaps haven from home, inspired this "Memory of Florence" (continued)


The Boston-based conductorless chamber orchestra A Far Cry plays a chamber-orchestra arrangement of the finale of Souvenir de Florence in Jordan Hall, January 2010.

"I wrote [the sextet] with the greatest pleasure and enthusiasm, and no effort whatever."
-- Tchaikovsky, writing to his patron, Mme von Meck

The quotation at the top of this post -- in which Tchaikovsky attempts to answer his patron Nadezhda von Meck's question about how he set about composing -- formed the introduction to an interesting but unfortunately uncredited liner note for the Melodiya-Angel LP issue of the 1964 Borodin Quartet & Friends recording of Souvenir de Florence. (A wild guess would be Rory Guy, who I recall wrote a lot of liner notes for the Melodiya-Angel issues.) If anyone happens to know who the author is, I'd love to be able to credit him.

Meanwhile, here's a streamlined version of what he has to say:
La bella Firenze. To the beautiful city on the Arno Tchaikovsky owed what he was to call "the happiest moments of my life." In times of personal stress, overwork, or in desperate need of simple relaxation, the composer was to return again and again to the sunlit streets and lichen-covered walls of his beloved Florence. In 1878, upon completion of Yevgeny Onegin and the Fourth Symphony (which he was to program while "vacationing"), he setttled in Florence to rest in the early Italian spring with its profusion of violets and lilies of the valley, the bells of a hundred towers ringing out in the morning air, blending with the trumpets which were to appear later in his Capriccio italien (1880). And the city was also to give him, ironically, a gentle nostalgia for the Moscow cold which he had fled.

Writing once again to Mme von Meck he says: "How odd, how strange, but at the same time how sweet to think of my faraway, inexpressibly beloved home! There it is winter -- Muscovites, men and women, walk by your house wrapped in furs, the quiet is not disturbed even by the noise of carriages, the sleighs slide silently by . . . and I think of that winter not with aversion but with delight . . . one waits and waits for Lent to come, and with it the first signs of spring . . . with what affection one greets the first green grass . . . Here [in Florence] the spring comes on slow feet, little by little -- one cannot say exactly when she has arrived. And I cannot be moved by the sight of green grass when I have had it before my eyes in December and January." And although Florence in March was magnificent that year, a restless Tchaikovsky moved on to the cold of Switzerland, which he found somehow refreshing. Yet December of the same year was to find him once again turning to Florence for much-needed rest and inspiration.

But this time was to serve the composer in a special way. For three short months he dwelled in the calm he treasured, in the Florence he adored. . . . It was due completely to the largesse of . . . his patroness and correspondent, Mme von Meck, that Tchaikovsky found himself basking in the Florentine sun, far removed from the rigors of the Russian winter. . . .

When he arrived at the spacious apartment she had found for him near her own Villa Oppenheim on the edge of Florence, a note typical of Mme von Meck awaited him. . . . [His] reply was particularly warm: Truly, dear friend, I cannot find words for my complete delight in everything that surrounds me here. I could not imagine more ideal living conditions. Last night I roamed through my charming apartment enjoying the wonderful stillness, aware that below my feet was the lovely town of Florence. When I opened the shutters this morning, the charm grew. . . . I can't describe my delight at the complete stillness of the evening, in which one hears only the roaring of the waters of the Arno, falling and tumbling somewhere in the distance. . . . I shall begin work tomorrow." . . .

When he was to leave for Christmas in Moscow he wrote: "I was happy here, and at peace; it was light and bright in my soul. . . . I did not accomplish my goal of leaving Florence with a completely finished suite. Nevertheless, I began an opera [The Maid of Orleans] . . . Therefore I can take away with me, not only wonderful memories, but a quiet conscience."

Wonderful memories. Some twelve years later, in 1890, after another rewarding stay (January to March) in Florence during which he composed his most popular opera, Pikovaya Dama (The Queen of Spades), Tchaikovsky returned to Russian and from Froslovskoe, near Klin, he wrote to Mme von Meck in July: "I had barely finished the opera before taking up a new piece, the sketch of which I have already completed. I hope you will be pleased to hear I have composed a sextet for strings. I know your love of chamber music, and I am happy you will certainly hear my sextet. It will be quite easy to arrange a performance at home. [Mme von Meck was ill at this time.] I do so hope the work will please you. . . . I wrote it with the greatest pleasure and enthusiasm, and no effort whatever."

This then is the Souvenir de Florence. Although strongly Russian in its influences, there are lingering traces of Florentine Romanticism, particularly in the Adagio. And this is as it should be; for how could it be otherwise from the pen of a Russian composer writing, in retrospect, a tribute to La bella Firenze, his city of dreams.

While he was actually working on the composition, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest: "I do not merely want to write a musical composition arranged for six instruments, but specifically a sextet; that is, six independent voices which can be performed only and exactly as a septet. . . . "

That was in June 1890. In November of that year, while in St. Petersburg for rehearsals of Pikovaya Dama, the composer held a private performance of the Sextet before such friends as Glazunov and Liadov. Seemingly dissatisfied with this first hearing, Tchaikovsky spent the next two years refining the Scherzo and the Finale. It was not until 1892, one year before his death, that the Sextet received its first public performance, by the St. Petersburg Music Society, to which the work was dedicated.

Then, as now, the beauty and unsurpassed craftsmanship of the Souvenir de Florence did much to establish Tchaikovsky as perhaps the most gifted founder of Russian chamber music.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir de Florence
(Sextet for Strings in D minor), Op. 70

I know I should probably say something about the individual movements, and readers who feel cheated have every reason to demand their money back. (Consider it done!) Let me just note that it's hardly unusual for works in what we might call "four-movement symphonic form" to have an opening movement and an ensuing slow movement of such emotional weight as to dominate the whole piece. Haydn was already doing it when he invented the form, in both symphonies and string quartets. It's the format of the wonderful Symphony No. 88, with the otherworldly slow movement, which we heard in September 2010.) It's also the format of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, which we heard last week.

Bruckner, who supersized everything else about the symphony, also supersized this ratio in his Seventh Symphony, which has that massive opening movement and then that haunting Adagio, followed by an invigorating but comparatively brief Scherzo and Finale. The trick is to have those later movements hold up their end of the deal even while conceding emotional primacy to the first two movements. This is in marked contrast to Bruckner's differently remarkable achievement in the Fourth Symphony: producing four movements of roughly equal musical and emotional weight. (We actually took in the whole shebang in January 2010, in "Bruckner's Fourth Symphony -- four stories for four movements." ) It just goes to show that there really aren't any rules about any of this, that it's all about what you can make work.

Let the record show that I reserve the right to come back at some point in the future and say something more about one or more of these movements. For now, please just enjoy them!

i. Allegro con giusto

Borodin Quartet (Rostislav Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov, violins; Dmitri Shebalin, viola; Valentin Berlinsky, cello); Genrikh Talalyan, viola; Mstislav Rostropovich, cello. Melodiya/Angel, recorded 1964

ii. Adagio cantabile e con moto

St. Petersburg Quartet (Alla Aranovskaya and Alla Krolevich, violins; Boris Vayner, viola; Leonid Shukayev, cello); Irina Savelyeva, viola; Dmitry Khrytchev, cello. SPSQ, recorded April 2008

iii. Allegretto moderato

Leonid Kogan and Elizaveta Gilels, violins; Rudolf Barshai and Genrikh Talalyan, violas; Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and Mstislav Rostropovich, cellos. Melodiya, recorded, well, no later than 1963 (probably earlier)

iv. Allegro vivace

Sarah Chang and Bernhard Hartog, violins; Wolfram Christ and Tanja Christ, violas; Georg Faust and Olaf Maninger, cellos. EMI, recorded in London, March 2001


We heard the first movement above and the second movement last night. What we could do would be to reincarnate those audio files and slip in another containing the shorter third and fourth movements. Okay, you talked me into it. (Or maybe it was me who talked me into it. I know it was somebody.)

I should note that this performance has been reissued by Chandos in a set that includes the Borodin's wonderful recording of Tchaikovsky's three string quartets, as part of a series of recordings by the Dubinsky-led Borodin. I haven't heard the reissue, having been a bit thrown by the sound of Chandos's desperately needed reissue of the indispensable Dubinsky-led Borodin set of the 13 Shostakovich quartets that existed as of the time Dubinsky emigrated from the Soviet Union.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir de Florence (Sextet for Strings in D minor), Op. 70:
i. Allegro con giusto

ii. Adagio cantabile e con moto

iii. Allegretto moderato
iv. Allegro vivace

Borodin Quartet (Rostislav Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov, violins; Dmitri Shebalin, viola; Valentin Berlinsky, cello); Genrikh Talalyan, viola; Mstislav Rostropovich, cello. Melodiya/Angel, recorded 1964


Maybe somebody out there knows more about this recording than I do? I was unfamiliar with it until I stumbled across it online, and wasn't even able to come up with a date. (The "no later than 1963" cutoff comes, of course, from the untimely demise of cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.) It's certainly an, er, interesting -- very interesting -- performance. This curiously matched assemblage of big-league talents seems to have just gone ahead and played the piece without feeling any need to hammer out some sort of common view of it.

Leonid Kogan (1924-1982), rather a flamboyant violinist, was nevertheless one of the Soviet Union's most distinguished. Elizaveta Gilels (1919-2008), although a fine musician in her own right, was doomed to be best known as the wife of Leonid Kogan and the younger sister of the great pianist Emil Gilels (1916-1985).

Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010), the original violist of the string quartet that became the Borodin, and then violist of the officially assembled butshort-lived Tchaikovsky Quartet, after establishing himself as one of the foremost violists of his time, went on to achieve considerable distinction as a conductor. (Just last week we heard a wonderfully flavorful, vibrant performance of of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien he conducted with the Vancouver Symphony.) I wish I could tell you more about violist Genirkh Talalyan, whom we've also heard as guest violist in the Borodin Quartet Souvenir de Florence, than that he was clearly an admired colleague of chamber musicians of his time; virtually all the search hits for him are to the Borodin Souvenir de Florence. (The others are to this recording.)

I'm going to assume that Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), surely the greatest cellist of the recorded era (I hesitate only over the tragically short-lived Emanuel Feuermann) needs no introduction (I assume he's playing the first cello part here), but Sviatoslav Knushevitsky (1908-1963) was hardly less distinguished. He was a cherished colleague of violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974); they partnered with pianist Lev Oborin (1907-1974) to form one of the finest of all piano trios.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir de Florence (Sextet for Strings in D minor), Op. 70:
i. Allegro con giusto
ii. Adagio cantabile e con moto
iii. Allegretto moderato
iv. Allegro vivace

Leonid Kogan and Elizaveta Gilels, violins; Rudolf Barshai and Genrikh Talalyan, violas; Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and Mstislav Rostropovich, cellos. Melodiya, recorded, again, no later than 1963 (probably earlier)


Here's a performance I stumbled across online, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the Korean conductor Djong Victorin Yu.


Yes, come July 11 it will be two years since I last undertook the weekly drudgery of updating this already large and growing massive . . . er, thing. I had the feeling that while I wished it mattered, it didn't, to anybody but me. And every time I think of resurrecting it, and contemplate the scale of the task (which of course grows larger by the month; since I don't think I've sk ipped a week in those years, we're talking -- as of this week -- some 104 posts, plus previews, that would need to be "processed"), I have the same feeling. Actually, there have been so many posts now that both my memory and the search engines are increasingly unequal to the task of revealing and retrieving what's been covered.

Well, the index updated as of 7/11/10 still exists, and against the possibility that it may, for someone, be of interest, I thought I'd dust the link off. Here it is.


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