Go Fourth and listen in wonder !
A revelatory version of a Tchaikovsky symphony, all but lost and forgotten, has been recorded for the first time in history, says MICHAEL TUMELTY.
Music lovers following the BBC SSO’s current survey of the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky should be alerted to a major discovery in the sphere of Tchaikovsky performance: a previously unknown version of the composer’s heart-wrenching, thunderous piece of emotional autobiography, the Fourth Symphony. Now, the very first thing to do in this little yarn of musical detection is back off from that statement. The revelation of this version of the great symphony, a transcription written for two pianists at one piano, is not actually a discovery at all. Its existence has been recorded for many years as a footnote in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. It is to be found in the worklist appended to the biographical note on Sergei Taneyev, the nineteenth-century Russian pianist who gave the first Moscow performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and subsequently gave the world premiere performances of all of Tchaikovsky’s other works for piano and orchestra.
Taneyev, a gifted craftsman, was the single most trusted professional confidant of Tchaikovsky. A former student of the great man, he was uniquely invited by the composer to offer his criticism of Tchaikovsky’s latest compositions. Taneyev’s transcription of the Fourth Symphony, arranged for four hands at one piano, is recorded in Grove’s with no information, just the legend: “Moscow, 1879”, only one year after the premiere of the symphony itself. That said, the existence of the Taneyev version has been almost unknown, other than to specialists and musicologists. Until now. Pianists Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow, a husband-and-wife team, and a well-known and respected full-time professional duet partnership, got their hands on a copy of the music, long since out of print, and, stunned at what they discovered, sorted out the myriad mistakes missed at the proof-reading stage, and have now recorded it on CD. It’s almost certainly the first recording of the work, and it is so revelatory of the music itself – as well as being a cracking performance – that it should become an imperative for any devotee of this most personal and volcanic musical statement from Tchaikovsky’s tortured spirit.
As so often with discoveries, the unearthing of the Fourth transcription came about by a circuitous route. About 15 years ago, Caroline Clemmow was on a concert tour in the Soviet Union. Saddled with a pile of roubles that she was not allowed to take out of the country, she dashed into a music shop in Leningrad just before leaving, and grabbed armfuls of sheet music for piano duet and two pianos, which she bought with her otherwise useless currency. She couldn’t read the Cyrillic script and didn’t fully appreciate what she’d acquired.
The haul included a deeply impressive piano duet version of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, arranged, according to the frontispiece, by N Rimsky-Korsakov, as in Russia’s great orchestral colourist and composer of Scheherazade, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The Goldstone-Clemmow team immediately incorporated the overture into their repertoire, and, says Anthony Goldstone, “played it hundreds of times, completely under false pretences, though we didn’t know it at the time”. In the course of their careers, they have established a network of contacts who are specialists in sheet- music collection, some of them, according to Goldstone, “complete obsessives”. Two things happened. One of these contacts discovered that the Romeo and Juliet Overture transcription (also featured on this trailblazing new CD) was not, in fact, made by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The N stood for Nadezhda, and the transcription was made by Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife; but that’s another story altogether. At the same time, Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow were looking for appropriate music to put with the Romeo and Juliet Overture to form a cohesive concert programme. They, too, knew of the footnote in Grove’s about the arrangement of the Fourth Symphony, and put the word out on their network. The word came winging back from one of their friendly “obsessives” that not only did he know of the arrangement, but he actually possessed a copy of it in an ancient edition published in Leipzig. The husband and wife fell on it, devoured it, and were stunned at the quality of Taneyev’s transcription. It is, indeed, mind-blowing. Everything in the symphony is there. There is no pianistic trickery or fakery to simulate orchestral effects, apart from occasional tremolo figures to mimic the timpani or the continuous sound of the strings. It is an absolutely straightforward transcription, dazzlingly effected by Taneyev and gloriously played by Goldstone and Clemmow, which somehow, without the glittering orchestration on which you would think the symphony absolutely depends, succeeds in capturing the spirit and emotionalism of the piece. It requires just a moment of the listener to adjust the mindset away from the familiar orchestral drapery of the piece. Once you’re into it, it is gripping. The detail of the inner workings of the composition that shines through is phenomenal. It amounts to a real complement to the orchestral version, which will enhance the experience of the symphony for all those who love it deeply.
Last weekend I managed to track down the pianists, who perform their duet act on the telephone just as fluidly as they do at the keyboard; and, though they have now known the work for some time, they are still as excited with their discovery as when it landed on their desk. “It’s like a black-and-white film as opposed to a colour film. You hear the bones of the work more, the structure, bits of texture, and all manner of details that you haven’t noticed before. Yet, it loses none of its immediacy and pungency.”
Two practical points to make. In exactly a year, the Goldstone-Clemmow team is coming to Scotland. They are proposing to bring a Tchaikovsky programme with them. At the moment, they have just two engagements secured on the music club circuit. I would strongly urge Scotland’s network of music societies to investigate this new recording, and get on the phone to the pianists; their contact details are in the Tours Book issued to all societies by Enterprise Music Scotland. Book them, and ask for the symphony – which, so far, they have played in concert only three times – and the Romeo and Juliet Overture. It will guarantee a sensational night in your society (as long as there is a decent piano for them to play).
Second point. How to get the CD. You almost certainly won’t find it in the shops, though it can be ordered that way. The recording has been made by the enterprising one-man company, The Divine Art – another interesting yarn to be spun one day. Best way to get hold of a copy (at about £12.99 and worth every nickel) is direct from the company. See below for the address. One last point, for any pianists interested in investigating the transcription. Goldstone and Clemmow are unaware of any modern-day publication of the score, but feel sure that there are probably copies in university libraries or other specialist libraries.