Audiophile Audition

British pianist Anthony Goldstone launches the first of two volumes dedicated to solo piano transcriptions of Tchaikovsky scores: this first devotes itself to orchestral concert works and operatic music. Goldstone makes his bravura mark from the outset, with a transcription of the 1876 Slavonic March , a piece Tchaikovsky created in five days to promote the Russian Music Society’s aid of victims of the war between Serbia and Turkey. The piece incorporates a number of anthems and Serbian melodies, and the 1904 arrangement by the otherwise mysterious H. Hanke has Goldstone’s wrists, articulation and stamina each tested in the course of a galloping panorama of nationalist fervor.

Tchaikovsky wrote his opera The Voyevoda around 1868, based on an Ostrovsky libretto about a regional governor. Tchaikovsky first arranged the Entr’acte and Dance of the Chambermaids for piano duet and the his so-called Potpourri on Themes from the Opera The Voyevoda under a pseudonym: H. Cramer. The fourteen-minute collation has no great melodic impulse, but it casts a distinctly Russian glow via folk song settings and Slavic rhythms. A snappy martial tune appears that Tchaikovsky subjects to contrapuntal development, rather knotty under the hands, it seems. A more heavily Russian dance emerges with four-square rhythm and thick bass chords, until a series of ostinati in the right hand urge us forward in a sound like the Catacombs section of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition . The last section sounds a bit like silent movie music, choppily sentimental.

The Suite No. 3 in G Major (1884) culminates in its most often performed section, the last movement Theme and Variations that Max Lippold (d. 1934) arranged for piano solo. Goldstone has emended his own knowledge of the orchestral version to fill out textures and enrich the piano’s approximation of symphonic effects. The theme and twelve variations each assumes a distinct national character, modulating to distant keys, like B Minor, and suddenly, in Variation Four , bursting into the Dies Irae , which would become a standard Rachmaninov ploy. The fifth variation offers an intricate fugato that shows off Goldstone’s capacity for Bach organ sonority. A syncopated scherzo follows, a kind of competition test-piece for the fingers. The next variant, which features an English horn solo and strings, evokes the English countryside. We shift rapidly into A Major for a Russian dance that could easily be interpolated into any Tchaikovsky ballet. The piano must next imitate a solo violin’s recitative-parlando and usher in a Waltz in B Minor over a drone pedal tone on A. After a transition via quick imitation and antiphons in Variation 11 , only the massive polonaise remains, an extended finale of breadth and lyrico-dramatic excitement. The curtain-raising effect of the polonaise has something of Chopin’s Op. 22 about it, the upbeat plunging us into a gallant world of aristocratic, militant gestures. The episodes bounce heroically with typical Tchaikovsky ballet fervor, and Goldstone makes us want to hurry to hear our favorite renditions with the orchestra under Kempe, Boult, Kondrashin, Scherman, and Matacic.

The piano would ordinarily be the last place I’d seek to hear Tchaikovsky’s 1880 Serenade in C for Strings, a piece I first heard with the exalted BSO string section under Koussevitzky. Tchaikovsky claimed the Serenade evolved “from inner conviction. It is a heartfelt piece.” From its opening on four chords in C, it descends to A Minor plaintively outlining the main theme for its opening Pezzo in forma di Sonatina with its tragic mood. Goldstone paces this basically classical structure, which lacks a development section proper, in broad periods, the piano’s voices a model of textural clarity, if not of tonal warmth. The abridged cyclicism to which the work conforms occurs at the movement’s end, in which the opening material reappears, a gesture Tchaikovsky brings back in the last movement, both as the four-note motto theme and then by literal recall. Without the various string choirs to form the sound world of this piece, it sounds like a piano reduction for expository purposes in counterpoint in a class devoted to form-and-analysis.

The famously lovely Valse seems to undergo a kind Pierre Boulez dissection in this keyboard version, and it becomes a salon answer to Weber’s Invitation to the Dance . For the ultimate in this movement’s potential for refined tragedy, listen to what Furtwaengler achieves; and unfortunately, he recorded only the second and fourth movements! The descending bass line helps define the ensuing Elegia movement in D Major; the piano version rather simplifies Tchaikovsky’s clever use of scale motives. The lovely melody over flowing arpeggios now sounds balletic, a forerunner of Prokofiev by way of Rachmaninov. Goldstone’s line moves briskly, in rather hard patina, but the textural clarity, poised and nobly supple, warrants our admiration. After the fermata , the main melody sounds like clever improvising in chromatic scales at a piano bar. Goldstone manages to impart a sense of mystery to the opening of the Finale: Tema ruso , with its own potpourri of Russian folk songs and dances. In this regard, the affinity between this movement and the genuine piano piece, the Dumka , Op. 59 , seems to have been realized. The main theme under Goldstone does indeed a luminous keyboard sound, and his polyphony quite sweeps us along to the end, the tail swallowed by the head of the opening in what has been a fascinating excursion into Tchaikovsky, that musical and academic tussle whose victor is likely the composer.

—Gary Lemco