I dislike the free-wheeling use of the term “old chestnut” to describe a piece of music that’s been played more often than some would like. At the same time, while I wouldn’t call it a chestnut (“classic” would be more fitting), there came a point when I’d heard Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto so often I doubted I’d ever want to hear it again.
Come December, I can turn into a positive curmudgeon about the seasonal music on offer. I recognize there are much-loved traditions, but this last holiday season I was relieved to find a David Lang alternative to the plethora of Nutcrackers (not to mention Messiahs) on offer.
Sometimes a work can sink under the weight of its own popularity. In Tchaikovsky’s case, the Disney-fication of his ballets, however cute the cartoons may be, doesn’t help the cause for listening to the music, at least not for me. Which is all to say that, in my listening habits, I’d set Tchaikovsky aside some time ago and went on to other things.
Tchaikovsky started to sneak back into my attention as the result of the kind offices of David Nice. First, it was the opera Pique Dame (I confess I only knew it as The Queen of Spades, and the title was all I knew). Nice posted an irresistible frontispiece of a vocal score he’d brought back from Petersburg and advised he’d be talking about the opera on BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library. His recommendations for recordings of the opera included one in a comprehensive Brilliant Classics set of Tchaikovsky’s works.
I wrote to say I’d enjoyed the broadcast and had tracked down the Glyndebourne DVD of the opera he’d also mentioned. We then had this exchange:
David: What – so you’re NOT splashing out on the 60-CD Brilliant set? Rather uneven, I have to say, but with enough great performances and rare rep to make it worth the price of something like £2 per disc.
I replied: You are too much! I admit it’s true, but it’s only because I tied myself to the mast. (I did once buy a 20 CD set of music in order to get hold of one piece that could be found nowhere else, so you never know . . .)
It’s true, I was tempted to buy the Brilliant Set, but the 20 CD set I do own (not Tchaikovsky, something else) sounded a cautionary note. After a once-through to hear what was there, I’ve listened to little of it since. Not to mention that I already had a whole lot of music cued up on my to-do listening list—several lifetimes’ worth, in fact.
Well, next I knew, Nice’s recommendations had me listening to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Tempest (the latter of which I put on my 2011 year-end list). More recently, I started in on the other symphonies, beginning, again as the result of a prompt from Nice, with No. 4. There go my 21st century street creds, I thought. Shostakovich or Stravinsky, maybe, but all this Tchaikovsky? Now that’s really “trousers rolled.”
To complicate matters further, Nice reported this past December on a new CD set of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, “which the more I hear it,” he wrote, “the more I’m convinced is his meisterwerk.” Based on Nice’s track record of listening recommendations, I knew attention must be paid. Not only that, but the CD set came with Nice’s liner notes. No matter what I ended up thinking about the music, these I had to have, and I was right: Nice’s extraordinary liner notes could keep a person busy for the hundred years Princess Aurora slept.
Unlike what’s heard in performance, the CD contains all the music Tchaikovsky wrote. The full score delivers enchantment from beginning to end. As I listened, I was astounded by the range in moods and methods Tchaikovsky brought to the ballet. With Nice’s liner notes to guide me, the Pas de Six, where the fairies offer their christening gifts, revealed not only a dance of fairies, but also a dance of instruments. These included, among others, the sinuous clarinet in the Adagio, the Fée aux Miettes–qui tombent (the fairy of generosity) letting “the breadcrumbs of the title drop pizzicato against low chords from trombones and tuba [Nice, p. 12],” and a chirping piccolo for the Canari qui chante (the fairy of eloquence)—not to mention the Fée des Lilas’ (Lilac Fairy’s) sumptuous waltz.
Nice scatters delectable musical breadcrumbs throughout the notes, including references to composers ranging from Lully to Shostakovich, like this about the music for Tom Thumb (Pas Berrichon): “The young Shostakovich was fascinated by the [unisons] hurled around the orchestra as Tom Thumb dons the Ogre’s boots and strides away . . . [Nice, p. 17].” Pas Berrichon, he notes, is almost always cut from performances of the ballet, and what a shame.
Nice points to the modern in the work, as well. In Act III, The Sapphire Fairy is given “a racy number in the unusual metre of 5/4 . . . . And devilishly difficult it is to dance to—hence its usual absence from productions [Nice, pp. 16-17].” Also in Act III, Puss in Boots emits “mewings that at first verge on the atonal [Nice, p. 17].”
I haven’t been to a ballet in perhaps thirty years, but after listening to The Sleeping Beauty CD several times, I had to see it, too. Nice came to the rescue here, as well, with a 1994 Royal Ballet production (US Canada; all regions version here) designed by Maria Björnson. As always, the music isn’t delivered whole, but there’s plenty of the score to hear, all beautifully played. The dancers are elegant and graceful to a person, and Björnson’s set design and costumes are fairy-tale perfect.
I often wonder how anyone spots a masterpiece. What are the indicia? Isn’t it, more often than not, a matter of time and taste? With Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, I get the idea. This is a piece of infinite treasure, and, with Nice’s liner notes in hand, each listen (and look) takes you in more deeply than I’d thought imaginable.
Tchaikovsky’s music not only builds beautifully on what’s gone before, but also brilliantly anticipates what is to come. Nice writes, “the ballet constitutes an inventory of what at that time were new and unorthodox groupings of instruments, and went on to inspire a new generation of composers, among them Stravinsky, who declared The Sleeping Beauty to be Tchaikovsky’s chef d’ouevre [Nice, pp. 10-11].”
Along the way, there are waltzes galore, not to mention an exuberant Polonaise (Polacca):
Postscript: For those who may be wondering, while I haven’t snapped up the Brilliant Classics set as yet, I’m saving my shekels, and it’s now on my list.
>For selections from The Sleeping Beauty (Dorati/Concertgebouw recording), click here.
>For works by Tchaikovsky mentioned in the post (including the Countess’s aria from Pique Dame), click here.
>Bonus Tracks: in one post, Nice identified a series of symphonies, including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, that moved musically from “darkness to light.” Listening to them together is a revelation. To hear them, click here.
> Pas de Six (Variations I-VI; does not include Intrada-Adagio or Coda)
(To see a performance of Pas Berrichon, click here and go to 4:24.)
>The Sapphire Fairy (1:52-2:33)
Credits and Copyright
All quotations and images credited to David Nice are © David Nice. Please respect the copyright and do not use the quotations or images without Nice’s express permission, which may be requested here. With grateful thanks to David Nice for permission to display the images of the score frontispiece and the Björnson set, which may also be found here and here. Except for exchange of comments and the “meisterwerk” quotation, which may be found here and here, the quotations from Nice are from the liner notes [page numbers are bracketed with each quote] that accompany the Chandos Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty/Jarvi, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra CD, which may be found here.