JULY. SONG OF THE REAPER.
All the melancholy of June is dissipated by the very first “sunny” E-flat Major chord of this piece. Open air, wide fields, sun, fresh wind. July and August, an incursion in the peasant life, core of the Russian spirit. Lively and vigorous character, energy in the movement though not very fast (Allegro moderato con moto), always free cantabile feeling. To feel your own shoulders free when playing, like it is said in the poetical epigraph by Koltsov (« Move the shoulders, shake the arms! »).
To my taste the half note (and not the quarter note) is the unit of the movement, thus there is much more flexibility and freedom in the phrasing. The melodies seem to me deeply connected to the Russian popular songs.
The construction of the first phrase is not regular and quite original: 3 and 4-bar patterns connected – one can imagine the rhythm of Russian epic poetry, with descriptive adjectives placed after the nouns, returning echoing repeats, etc.
The orchestral thinking is quite present here too: for example, with the bass pizzicati in the C Minor central section. The fast and vigorous sixteenth-notes contain a part of the general melodic line and shouldn’t be played dryly. It is also important to think a long melodic line in the beginning of the C Minor part, despite the constantly and regularly repeated breaks.
The expressive legato slurs in each pair are equally important. The climax repeated twice should be played with bravery but still in a singing way, with a powerful and expressive cantabile sound.
The accompanying triplets in the recapitulation are as if a light breeze was blowing, mildly whirling around, becoming more and more the principal element of the musical material and flying away to the skies.
This piece was defined by Tchaikovsky himself as a Scherzo. One of the most virtuosic pieces of the cycle, it is from a pianistic point of view quite uncomfortable. The tempo is undoubtedly fast (Allegro vivace). The idea of a Scherzo movement based on quick, restless and anxious triplets are also to be found in the C Minor Scherzo for violin and piano and partly in the Scherzo from the 6th Symphony. The contrasting middle section (Tranquillo) also doesn’t seem to sound natural in a too slow movement; indeed it is much easier to consider the long and beautiful melodic line of this part as rather fluid and flexible, than static. The unit of the movement here is, for me, the two-bars segment.
From all the pieces of the Seasons August seems to me the least connected to the meaning of the title. The harvest should be a very busy time and hard work, but it is an accomplishment and somehow a feast at the same time – yet there is no joy in the piece. There is much more of a troubled mood, agitation, confusion, almost despair. There are sobbing, crying intonations in the descending seconds of the main theme. The choice of B Minor for the main tonality is also hard to associate with happiness.
The first phrase seems extremely important to me as a general key to the whole piece. Of course we could say that about nearly any piece of music, but the beginning of the “Harvest” looks particularly delicate.
To feel the unity of the phrase (always long-line thinking) one can follow the direction of the melody: the B Minor scale is exposed fully in a descending motion, turning around as if trying to break during this fall (bars 1-4), then, is repeating up and down movements. Always make the crying intonations of the descending minor second expressive (a « living » relation between two legato-tied notes), and especially important are the ones between the quarter note and the following 8th-note, as if sliding down from the first to the second. Listen to the beautiful fluid harmonies. The constantly fleeing, whirling movement does not facilitate the task.
This movement should never be faster than the capacity of your ear to listen, to follow and, with your fingers, to shape the living melody.
The middle section in D Major is a peaceful contrast to the turmoil of the Allegro vivace. Legato cantabile, fluidity and flexibility in the phrasing. At the end, the sudden turn to the minor and the connection to the returning main part are bitterly melancholic. The end of the piece is powerful with a kind of desperate courage. Summer is going away, Autumn is coming.
SEPTEMBER. THE HUNT.
And now come joyfully and vigorously the hunting horns – « there blow the horns! ». The poetical epigraph is the famous initial verse of Pushkin’s poem “Count Nulin”.
The piece is indeed describing this joyful, agitated though slightly pompous entertainment. The brass instrument’s sound color (essentially horns and trumpets) is majestically powerful, rising to the overwhelming FF at the end of the middle section.
The “orchestration” of the middle section is extremely contrasting with the beginning: instead of the brass and mighty tutti, we can hear solo woodwinds and strings, sometimes pizzicato. Everything becomes transparent and disquiet. Igumnov’s image for this part, “hounds sniffing in the bushes”, is extraordinary:
The excitement is growing, the hunters and the horns are closer and closer. About the B Major fortissimo chords Igumnov was saying – “the dogs are barking here”.
Speaking about the harmony, one can notice the absolute domination of the minor in the middle section, another great contrast with the main part. The recapitulation after thus seems even more amplified and powerful.
The tempo shouldn’t be very fast (Allegro non troppo), holding an extremely powerful and vigorous rhythm. The concentrated and a little bit intentionally rounded hands, the tonicity in somehow more vertically than usual positioned fingers are helpful in the research of the round, full and penetrating sound imitating horns and trumpets.
OCTOBER. AUTUMN SONG.
It is the deepest and the only fully tragic piece of the cycle. Here, maybe for the first time in Tchaikovsky’s music, we feel deep mourning, words of a last farewell, like later in his Trio and his last Symphony. And in this sense the “Autumn Song” is very difficult to play. A true masterpiece among Tchaikovsky’s miniatures, this piece cannot stand (I would even say survive) neither a cold-hearted, well-calculated execution nor falsely exaggerated feelings. This extreme fragility places the piece in the same rank with some of Brahms’ late Intermezzi. Absolute sincerity and, as deep and natural as possible, cantabile sound are the necessary and ultimate conditions if you play the “Autumn Song”. Tchaikovsky’s tempo indication Andante doloroso e molto cantabile is explicit enough.
Concerning the “Autumn Song” Igumnov evoked the “Autumn elegy” by Alexander Blok with its “slowly whirling yellow leaf” and ” an unavoidable decay of the soul”.
Everything should be done for a real legato playing (consequently quite a few special fingerings with changements of fingers on the same key could be used), for the deepness of the longing sound.
Though quite slow, the tempo should keep enough movement in order to unify long phrases. The full use of tempo rubato is not only possible or desired, but is strictly necessary. The dialogs between the two singing voices are extremely expressive and full of speaking intonations.
The middle section, beginning in F Major with a kind of suggestion for a slow waltz movement, leads to a heartbreaking climax, mournful and full of hopelessness. Igumnov suggested the following fingering:
The recapitulation is an exact repeat of the exposition. In the coda the left hand suggests the sound of a death knell far away. The mourning intonation of the minor second is fading away in a last attempt to rise.
One of the most popular pieces of the cycle. Partly because of the great recording made by Rachmaninov (a true performing masterpiece!); but although Igumnov’s recording is certainly not so perfect, his version is still closer to my heart.
In both last pieces the epigraphs, though poetically beautiful, seem to fit the music less. Nevertheless nowadays they are inseparable and it is surely the best thing that could happen!
The wonderful poem by Nekrasov “Troïka” describes a young peasant girl following desperately with her eyes a troïka (a carriage with three horses) with a handsome young officer inside, as a dream flying away. The miserable reality will transform her life into slavery.
There is no tragic bitterness in Tchaikovsky’s music. We can however really feel the fast ride of the coach, open air, snowy fields, bells jingling.
The tempo is Allegro moderato and this moderato could be important when we are trying to find a beautifully sparkling light staccato for the right hand in the recapitulation, imitating at the same time the steps of the horses trotting away and the ringing little bells. The width of the splendid melody, sounding as a true Russian folk song, does not give the desire of taking a too fast tempo. The marvelous illusion of the ride is achieved by the regularity of the syncopated accompaniment chords, as if we could feel the springs of a good carriage. The same role is played by the special articulation of the melodic line, combining legato and spotted staccato notes (which I prefer to think more as portamento), giving an impression of the small irregularities of the road.
But by all means the continual unity of the melody should be preserved and cherished.
The initial E Major theme is based on the pentatonic scale. During the first six bars Tchaikovsky thoroughly avoids A and D#, which makes the following nostalgic modulation to G# Minor so natural and so necessary. At the beginning, the melody is played in unison by both hands, suggesting a harmonious romantic duo. The lower voice is as important as the upper one, though colored softly. Full and mild cantabile. After an intermediate melodic development the principal theme returns, flourished and powerful, exposed with full cantabile chords in the right hand. Deep, powerful and expressive cantabile. The triplets in the left hand’s accompaniment should be unified, played in equal waves, without noticeable crescendo. In the melodic line the difference in the articulation, compared with the beginning, should be underlined in an expressive way.
The middle section with the somehow oscillating tonality (A Minor – G Major – E Minor – B Minor, etc.) is written in a rather characteristically dancing manner – decelerating, stopping, then suddenly accelerating, stopping, etc. Tchaikovsky gives grazioso as a general character for this part. If we continue our comparison with the ride, the road becomes more rough or windy.
The recapitulation comes when the road gets once again smooth, like at the beginning. The light, silvery, « ringing-trotting » staccato 16th-notes of the right hand should be played as equally as possible and this is not an easy task. The initial articulation of the principal melody returns, played this time by the left hand only. The wonderful image of a carriage riding farther and farther away before it has completely vanished reminds me a lot of the ending of Schubert’s D Major Sonata D.850.
Tchaikovsky gives Tempo di Valse as the tempo indication for the last piece of The Seasons. Igumnov said that it is “a waltz in the intimate, family circle”.
The long phrase is made in two-bars units. It suggests a fluid and quite going forward general tempo. The Molto ritenuto in the 7th bar (and similar after) should be naturally compensated here and there with small accelerando tendencies and fluidity of tempo.
The pedal should be quite accurate, respecting the constantly returning silences in the melody, and mostly light. However the silences should not cut the continuous long melodic line, but on the contrary they could become helpful in keeping the constantly going-forward, turning round and round movement.
The E Major Trio, even if there is no indication of tempo change, could be felt in a slightly more calm movement (as a traditionally slower classical trio). A wonderful image for this Trio is given by Igumnov: the elder guests are playing cards meanwhile the young people keep dancing. The repeated (on the first beat of each bar) pedal on B in the left hand is as if the cards were dropped one by one on the table during the deal.
This image is interrupted by a kind of intimate dialog between the dancing couple. The cards play comes back and in the end of the Trio there is a sudden transformation, with a wave of bitterly melancholic intonations so characteristic for Tchaikovsky’s style.
The whole piece is composed in a Da capo form with a full and exact repetition of the first part, which is connected to the Coda. The later correction with the cut of the first part’s last bar seems less convincing.
In the Coda the movement becomes more and more whirling and agitated and then, rather suddenly, with a gradual diminuendo, the music mildly escapes to eternity.
Serguei Milstein, Lyon, 2020