Tchaikovsky Without the Theatrics

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

Tchaikovsky without breast-beating? Without tears? The appearance ofa batch of unhackneyed, unprepossessing music for solo piano by the master of the maudlin pleasantly contradicts the prevailing image.

When unable to avail himself of the huge, late-Romantic symphony orchestra and the temptations (never resisted) it offered for spilling his anguished guts, Tchaikovsky could be the most gracious of entertainers.

His longest work for solo piano, “The Seasons” (misnamed, since its 12 movements are mood pictures of the months of the year), re-creates in miniature the lyric world of his ballet music.


It was produced--and published in a St. Petersburg, Russia, magazine one month at a time--in 1876, the year of the “Rococo Variations” for cello, with whose relaxed mood it has much in common, and the overheated “Francesca da Rimini,” which couldn’t be more dissimilar. While the melodies of “The Seasons” are typically Tchaikovskian in their wistfulness, the lyric innocence of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” is present too, with an occasional touch of Chopin’s harmonic daring.

There are three new editions of “The Seasons.” The surprise, aside from the satisfactions offered by the music, is that there could be such interpretive variety among the three, considering the outward simplicity of the music.

The most exotic of the performers is Xiang-Dong Kong, a 26-year-old native of China, who will, incidentally, be appearing at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 3. Kong, we are told in the notes accompanying the RCA Victor recording (62520), is “a descendant of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius, through 75 generations,” which may account, to further quote from the notes, for his “calm assurance and devotion to his art.”

Whether because of his ancestry or more tangible factors, Kong plays “The Seasons” with winning charm and subtlety. In his hands, this is music to dream by.

Three additional Tchaikovsky miniatures and the substantial “Dumka,” in which Kong shows that he can effectively play to the gallery as well, round out a most satisfying program.

Of the two Russians who con stitute the recorded “Seasons” competition, Mikhail Pletnev has the major solo career. Pletnev, as intense and insightful as ever, brings more tension and darkness to the music than Kong. But, like the Chinese pianist, he succeeds in projecting--rather than overwhelming--its warmly beating heart (Virgin 45042).

Pletnev’s fill-up selection is the “Six Morceaux,” Opus 21. These rather glum variations pieces date from 1873 and were dedicated by Tchaikovsky to his revered master, Nikolai Rubinstein, who, as was his custom with his famous pupil’s creations, not only failed to acknowledge the dedication but also never played them.

Luba Edlina, who presents the third “Seasons” (Chandos 9309), is best known as the formidable pianist of the Borodin Trio. She may be feeling too much sense of release from ensemble duties in her inappropriately grand interpretation, which is beset by the rhythmic and dynamic fussing avoided by Kong and Pletnev. Edlina’s makeweight is the slender “Petite Suite” by Borodin.

Tchaikovsky at his most hectoring and undisciplined, the Sonata in G, Opus 37, is given the all-stops-out treatment by Oxana Yablonskaya, a Russian pianist currently on the Juilliard faculty (Naxos 553063, budget priced). Her gleeful, unquestionably skillful projection of its sweaty histrionics has a certain kinky appeal.

But there isn’t much to be said on behalf of her punchy, graceless way with the inherently more attractive accompanying material, another “Six Morceaux,” this time Tchaikovsky’s Opus 51, a delectable, trouble-free set of salon miniatures.

The same Opus 51--part of a generous program of Tchaikovsky morsels--blossoms and beguiles in the affectionately straightforward readings of Juliana Osinchuk, whose name (the liner notes fail to provide a biographical clue) and label, Chaconne (the number of the release is 94001), are new to me.