B TCHAIKOVSKY War Suite
Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation) is hardly top of anyone’s hit parade but that soft spot I have for his music continues to get softer and more needy. On the surface, the Piano Quintet Tchaikovsky wrote in 1962 behaves like any self-respecting four-movement chamber work by a Russian composer, who knew and was admired by Shostakovich, should. A perpetually rotating melodic line spelt out via octave unisons in the piano’s tenor register sets out the terrain, with the occasional chromatic smudge telling you to watch out. But nothing prepares you for the deeply oddball introduction to the finale. Isolated piano clusters are marooned in space. The string quartet play recognisably tonal material but sound like they are trying to solve an enigmatic mathematical equation. Tchaikovsky shatters the fourth wall.
Tchaikovsky’s other favoured technique is to flood nakedly tonal material with unpredictable waves of chromaticism: what was rigidly stable gradually slips towards instability as tonal centres are shaken out of their harmonic certainty. The Vanburgh Quartet and pianist Olga Solovieva put real intellectual muscle behind the physical weight of their playing. Tchaikovsky’s third-movement Scherzo sweats nervously, its irritated rhythms hoping to bed down in a groove that Tchaikovsky continually denies them; the Vanburghs keep the music pulled psychologically taut.
The War Suite was assembled by Elena Astafieva and Stanislav Prokudin as a concert suite from music Tchaikovsky wrote for a 1964 film, While the Front is in Defence. As a sequence of vibrantly sketched character pieces it’s pretty good – but the Piano Quintet soon called me back for a second listen.