Yakov Kreizberg's catalog with PentaTone tends to represent familiar classics, ranging from Mozart's violin concertos to Strauss' waltzes, so it's not surprising to find an account of Dmitry Shostakovich's widely acclaimed and highly accessible Symphony No. 5 in D minor included on this 2007 hybrid SACD. What's less expected is that the rest of the program is occupied by the comparatively unfamiliar Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, a far less popular work that has left many puzzled by its ambiguity.
If one is searching for an extra-musical heading under which to bracket the con- tent of the Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 & 6 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one cannot really avoid the word “fate”. Personal fate, to be exact. Thus his Symphony No. 4 (1876-78) was a frank confession straight from the soul, a subtle psychological portrait printed on paper. In a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, he talked of “fate, this disastrous power, which prevents our urgent desire for happiness from achieving its objective”. After this, a further 11 years passed before Tchaikovsky attempted to compose another “purely” symphonic work – his Symphony No. 5.
Following the completion of the 4th’s subtle psychography, 11 years would pass before Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky would return to the composition of a ‘purely’ symphonic work – the 5th Symphony (the composer considered his mighty Manfred Symphony dating from 1885 as his only explicitly programmatic symphony). Despite having just returned from a spectacularly received European concert tour, he commenced the project in a state of complete exhaustion, self-doubt & uncertainty. From his new country residence in Klin, he wrote in the spring of 1888: “I frequently have doubts about my own abilities & wonder if it is not time to stop, & if my creativity has not been stretched to the limit.” His comments in a letter to his benefactor, Nadeshda von Meck, in June, are similar; he fears that “the well may be dry.”
Not many world famous composers have been equally successful at writing both absolute and programme music. Moreover, only a mere handful has managed to achieve something truly extraordinary in both genres. One of these coposers was Peter Tchaikovsky. When inspired by great literature, his passion for reading likely stood him in good stead: after all, as far as Tchaikovsky was concerned, reading ranked ‘among the greatest moments of pleasure’.
Nowadays, Tchaikovsky’s 1st 3 symphonies seldom appear on the concert programmes, whereas his symphonies 4 to 6 – in other words, the symphonies generally recognized as masterpieces – are regularly included. Thus the 3 early symphonies share a fate that none of them have necessarily earned. After all, each in its own individual way is a worthwhile symphony: the composer certainly did not consider them to be preliminary works, a type of precursor to the later symphonies. From 1866 to 1878, Tchaikovsky taught harmony at the Moscow Conservatoire & during this period, he composed – among other works – his 1st 3 symphonies, namely in 1866, 1872, & 1875. For Tchaikovsky, the journey leading to the symphony was not easy: on the contrary, he trod a painful path before tapping into this high-end genre.
Following the long & rocky road to the 1st Symphony, on which, due to his teaching duties at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky had been forced to work at night, the 2nd Symphony was composed mainly in the summer of 1872, hot on the heels of his 2nd opera, The Oprichnik. At this time, Tchaikovsky was once again taking a holiday on the country estate of his sister Aleksandra, located near the Ukrainian town of Kamianka, in the Kiev Governerate. Numerous anecdotes report Tchaikovsky’s touching assertion that he was not the true creator of the work, but rather, that it actually had been composed by a Pyotr Gerasimovich, 1 of the older servants in the household of his sister & her husband, Lev Davydov, for it was Pyotr Gerasimovich who had sung the folksong, The Crane, to him, which provided the basis for the work’s finale.
The genre of the symphony played a major role throughout the creative life of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. He composed his 1st symphony at the age of 26, & his 6th & last symphony – the Pathйtique – in 1893, the year in which he died. Whereas his 3 last symphonies have remained an integral part of the concert repertoire, performances of his 1st 3 symphonies are still quite rare. Unfairly so, as they are unique individual works, artistic expressions of a high quality. Tchaikovsky defined the symphony as “the most lyrical of musical forms. After all, is it not meant to express that for which there are no words, but which forces itself out of the soul, impatiently waiting to be uttered?”. With these words, Tchaikovsky makes us aware of the special nature of his symphonies. Primarily, they provided him with a musical outlet for the elaboration of his emotions, his mental & spiritual processes.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Manfred is a hermaphrodite – at least, as far as the music is concerned. For although the work (dating from 1885) was indeed dubbed by its creator as a symphony, it still did not receive a number alongside Tchaikovsky’s further six contributions to the category. And thus it was – and has still to some extent remained – “draped” over a stool, as it were: isolated in Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre somewhere between the categories of the symphony and the symphonic poem. Nevertheless, Manfred is definitely based on a literary programme. And what a programme – the eponymous dramatic poem written by the “dark romantic” poet, Lord Byron. Tchaikovsky devoted himself to this and to its eponymous hero with zeal, and seemed to even somewhat transform himself into Manfred during the intensive period of work. After all, he was also suffering from inner torment.