The latest release in the Newton Classics series of reissues of major recordings is due out this coming Tuesday (July 30). The CD amounts to a solo piano recital by Yefim Bronfman, recorded in May of 1998, released the following October by Sony Music Entertainment and now out of print. The reissue is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com. The featured composition is the entirety of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 37 twelve-movement collection The Seasons, followed by Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey,” serving somewhat as an “encore” composition.
Opus 37 was commissioned in 1875 by Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, editor of the monthly music magazine Nouvelist. He asked Tchaikovsky to compose twelve short solo piano pieces, one for each month of the year, which he would publish in respective issues of his magazine. Each piece appeared with a poetic epigraph (not by Tchaikovsky) selected by Bernard. As I understand it, this original version is now listed as Opus 37a; and Opus 37b refers to the complete collection, running from January to December, published in a single volume without the epigraphs. Those epigraphs are not included in the rather spare booklet notes provided by Tim Page for the original release; but they are available in English translation (and with all the source poets identified) on the Wikipedia page for this composition.
By way of historical perspective, Tchaikovsky had completed his Opus 23 B-flat minor piano concerto (the first) in February of 1875; and he began work on Bernard’s project the following December. I mention this because, compared with the almost monumental scale of Opus 23, each of these pieces is a delightful exercise in brevity, possibly reflecting the influence of Robert Schumann’s capacity for dramatic expression within the limits of brief duration. However, the movements of Opus 37 do not constitute the sort of “cycle” we associate with Schumann. Rather, in the spirit of the epigraphs that Bernard provided, each piece stands as an individual tone poem in miniature. Bronfman excellently captures this ability the express much in little time with the same level of understanding he brings to his insights in performing Schumann, making this recording an excellent resource for getting to know a side of Tchaikovsky that still receives relatively little attention.
“Islamey,” on the other hand, is an exercise in flamboyant virtuosity, owing far more to the influence of Franz Liszt than that of Schumann. Indeed, the fact that Balakirev called this piece an “oriental fantasy” may have reflected on Liszt’s pursuit of Hungarian source material through his nineteen rhapsodies (and other compositions). Bronfman approaches it with a light touch that might surprise some at first. However, that approach allows him to do full justice to the complex interleaving of melodic material with which Balakirev challenges the performer. This is virtuosic display for the sake of the listener, rather than just as a platform upon which the soloist can strut.
The return of this recording should thus be particularly welcome to those who feel that Russian solo piano music remains undeservedly neglected.