This first of two volumes dedicated to transcriptions and paraphrases for piano of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral and Operatic oeuvre is a revelation from start to finish. It is well documented that Tchaikovsky was not only a master pianist himself, but also a fine arranger of his own works, so this disc will help us no end in understanding and appreciating not only this unheralded gift of the composer, but also the acumen of other musicians who strove to bring Tchaikovsky’s wondrous melodies to a wider audience.

Written in just five days in November 1876, the “Marche Slave” is one of Tchaikovsky’s most rousing works. Built on Serbian tunes and on the Russian National Anthem “God Save the Tsar”, the March created a bedlam of enthusiasm at its premiere in the same month and year, and this induced the composer to write a version for solo piano, also in 1876. The transcription recorded here is by one H. Hanke and was published in Russia about 1904. Unfortunately, we know nothing about this person, not even whether it was a man or a woman, but what can be ascertained is that H. Hanke was a true virtuoso. The piano version of this famous piece is a staggering conception and it does not in any way spare the performer the difficulty and the stamina required to bring it off.

“The Voyevoda” was Tchaikovsky’s first opera based on Ostrovsky’s play “A Dream on the Volga”. Premiered at the Bolshoi in 1869, the work was a success, but for some unknown reason, it fell into oblivion after just 5 performances. In his disappointment Tchaikovsky later destroyed the full score manuscript, but miraculously most of the orchestral parts and other material survived and the work was reconstructed by Yuri Kochurov in the 1940’s. The “Potpourri’ on this recording is by H. Cramer but this is only a pseudonym of Tchaikovsky himself, a strong enough proof that the composer had total faith in this, his first operatic venture, and indeed why not, as the opera is absolutely brimming with sumptuous arias, choruses and ensembles of exceptional melodic invention. The “Potpourri’ is just a tantalizing taster but well worth hearing. The Suite No 3 and Serenade for Strings were composed in 1884 and 1880 respectively, and both command a legion of admirers.

The “Theme and Variations” (4th movement) is frequently performed separately from the rest of the Suite. This is due not only for its marvelously laid out structure, but also for its well judged length and scintillating tunes, particularly the final “polonaise’. The Serenade, with its famous “waltz’, is a heartfelt work, and Tchaikovsky had a special predilection for it. Maybe he knew that it would be one of his greatest successes, and even the grudge that Nikolai Rubinstein had for the composer disappeared once he heard it performed.

The transcriptions on this disc are by the performer himself and Max Lippold, an obscure pianist who made several arrangements of Russian orchestral music way back in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Renditions are imbued with a high dose of exciting pianism but the lyrical quality of the music is dealt with gentle finesse and subtle expressiveness. Sound and balance are first-rate. I’m looking forward to Volume 2.

—Gerald Fenech