June 03, 2021


Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3; Concert Fantasy; Allegro in C minor; Hungarian Gypsy Melodies. Andrej Hoteev, piano; Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra Moscow conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev. Hänssler Classic. $22.99 (3 CDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 (1889 version). Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

     Who would have thought that Tchaikovsky’s music suffered the same well-meaning depredations so familiar in the music of Bruckner? That skilled but misguided supporters and editors of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra would have mangled and damaged and rearranged and “simplified” them in their zeal to smooth out their elements of inelegance, as similarly misguided boosters of Bruckner did in the case of so many of his symphonies? Pianist/scholar Andrej Hoteev discovered in the late 1990s that Tchaikovsky’s piano-and-orchestra works had indeed been subjected to unfortunate, wrongheaded modifications, some of which were proposed directly to the composer, soundly rejected by him, and implemented anyway after his death. The guilty parties, Hoteev found, were Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) and Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), two strong boosters of Tchaikovsky’s music who nevertheless felt it needed changes in order to be more performable and more attractive to audiences. In this their thinking was closer to that of Franz Schalk and other Bruckner revisers than to that of, say, Rimsky-Korsakov, who smoothed over much of the cragginess of Mussorgsky but in so doing really did render his music, such as Night on Bald Mountain, more acceptable to listeners – certainly by the standards of the time.

     It is difficult to understand fully the motivations of Siloti and Taneyev when it comes to some of the most egregious modifications of Tchaikovsky’s music: Siloti’s hacking down of the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 2 to eliminate the triple-concerto structure that Tchaikovsky deliberately and carefully created, and Taneyev’s reduction of the three-movement Piano Concerto No. 3 to a single movement – with the other two published separately, under a different title, and in Taneyev’s own orchestration. Performance difficulties may account for the former, the unorchestrated-by-Tchaikovsky nature of the otherwise complete second and third movements for the latter. But Siloti and Taneyev – and others – took further liberties with Tchaikovsky that are even harder to countenance. The first movement of Piano Concerto No. 1 is marked Andante ma non troppo, but that was changed to Allegro ma non troppo. Similarly, the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 2 is marked Allegro brillante, but it was changed to Allegro brillante e molto vivace. In both cases, this speeds up the music, reducing its grandeur and expansiveness and turning the concertos into something closer to virtuoso vehicles. Then there is the matter of the Concert Fantasy. Tchaikovsky himself always called it a concerto, but Taneyev thought not, and went so far as to suggest that the first of the two movements could be performed as a standalone piece.

     There is, to be sure, a kind of academic-ness to disputes over matters of tempo and comparatively minor abridgments or alterations of music, and certainly Tchaikovsky’s piano-and-orchestra works survived Siloti’s and Taneyev’s (and publishers’) modifications, bringing enormous pleasure to audiences unaware of exactly what the composer originally intended. Yet as is quite clear from a Hänssler Classic re-release of Hoteev’s 1998 presentation of all Tchaikovsky’s music for piano and orchestra in original, unabridged form, the composer’s intentions result, time and again, in music of greater originality and different (although not necessarily greater) impact than what audiences have become accustomed to (as may, incidentally, also be said of Mussorgsky’s originals compared with those modified by Rimsky-Korsakov). Hoteev’s stately, statuesque Piano Concerto No. 1 and very extended Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Viktor Simon on cello and Mikhail Shestakov on violin in the “triple concerto” second movement) shed new light on the works – the second concerto’s scale here actually matches that of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The Concert Fantasy has more heft and grandeur here than usual, and Piano Concerto No. 3 really does sound fully formed as a three-movement work – and stands in strong contrast to the “Pathétique” symphony, which Tchaikovsky composed at the same time. The shorter works here – the early Allegro in C minor and the Liszt-derived Hungarian Gypsy Melodies – have some interesting background of their own, although they are not the main attraction of this exceptional three-CD set. Also here, and enough to send chills down the spine of music lovers, is a very short speech (in Russian) by Tchaikovsky himself, as recorded on an Edison wax cylinder in 1890. Given the provenance of the works researched and performed by Hoteev, and presented with such skill by him and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra Moscow under Vladimir Fedoseyev, the verbal appearance of the composer himself seems to create an imprimatur of authenticity for this entire project. It certainly deserves one: however well-meaning (or short-sighted) Siloti and Taneyev may have been, this is how Tchaikovsky himself wanted his music for piano and orchestra to come across to audiences.

     Still, when it comes to the championship (which is not really the right word) of untoward modifications of great composers’ works, Bruckner remains at the forefront. A new BR Klassik release of a very well-balanced, well-played and convincing recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons, shows why. Jansons (1943-2019) conducted this performance in 2005 – it is a live recording – and made the work as stately, clear and well-paced as an audience could wish. That, however, assumes the audience wants the 1889 Nowak version of this much-revised symphony. There are no fewer than six versions of Bruckner’s Third, and the first one published, which dates to 1890, is very rarely performed, since parts are certainly modified by Franz Schalk and his brother Josef, and no one is entirely sure which parts. Therefore, conductors who, like Jansons, favor the “late” Third, use the 1889 version, which significantly cuts the first movement and finale and removes the coda that the Scherzo had possessed earlier. Unlike some of the issues with Tchaikovsky’s piano-and-orchestra music, these are not trifling alterations and not merely a matter of academic discussion and musicological back-and-forth arguments. The Third was Bruckner’s breakthrough symphony, the first in which the genuinely original elements of his style came to the fore, and it was also his tribute to Wagner, to whom Bruckner showed it and who accepted its dedication. But what Wagner saw was the first version of the symphony, from 1873, which contained numerous references to Wagner’s works (Rienzi, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre). That Third was a 70-some-minute symphony that perhaps overreached in some ways but that possessed a monumentalism and majesty that disappeared as the work went through revision after revision. There are also a little-known 1874 version, of similar length to the 1873 original; an 1876 version, not performed until as recently as 2019, that removes some Wagner quotations but inserts one from Tannhäuser; and a revision of 1877-78. The extent to which Bruckner himself was dissatisfied with the symphony vs. his response to others’ unhappiness with it is by no means clear, but the versions differ in so many ways that they are almost on the same level as the two versions of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4, which are almost entirely different works. There is a very strong argument to be made for performing the 1873 version much of the time, fitting as it does within Bruckner’s stylistic development (although the following Symphony No. 4 was also much revised); there is also a good argument for playing the more-manageable 1889 version that Jansons uses, which is a quarter of an hour shorter than the 1873 original. This is no longer a “Wagner symphony” by 1889, but it is a generally well-proportioned one that is fully “Brucknerian” in stylistic terms. It works well – at least until the finale. However well Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks handle this movement, it remains something of a disappointment, not so much truncated as comparatively superficial, as if Bruckner is going through the paces of a “Bruckner finale” rather than assembling one painstakingly as he did when still perfecting the form in 1873. The result is inevitably something of a letdown, even in as well-played a rendition as this one. Jansons does his best with the music, and the orchestra’s warmth and quality of ensemble are as exemplary as always. But this 1889-version Bruckner Third simply does not sound as if it fulfills a compelling vision for the composer: it is not exactly slick, but it is a bit too polished to have the emotional heft of the less-well-balanced 1873 version. Bruckner’s Third is worth hearing in any version and almost any performance, and certainly this one by Jansons is very fine. But it also stands as a cautionary tale, showing the pitfalls for composers – the great ones, anyway – when they accept emendations and recommendations by others, no matter how well-intended the suggested changes may be.

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