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Four seasons in one hour

All the seasons in one concert – Igor Levit performs Tchaikovsky’s cycle of twelve months for piano

Igor Levit (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 26 January 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0505zfj

on the iPlayer until 28 February

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

What’s the music?

Tchaikovsky – Méditation (1893) (5 minutes)
Tchaikovsky – The Seasons (1876) (41 minutes)

What about the music?

It might seem like a recent development where music magazines carried CDs on the front, but the idea of the cover mount was given to Tchaikovsky all the way back in 1875 by Nouvellist, a St Petersburg magazine. They commissioned from the composer one piece per month in manuscript form, and these were often published with a short piece of text from the editor Nikolai Bernard.

Although they are separate pieces they work really well as a whole and are perfect easy listening. Closer inspection reveals a wealth of melodic content and some keen characterisation too – especially in the characteristic October gloom with which Autumn begins, dispelling the three bright and incident packed months of summer. Bookending the collection are January in front of the fire, and December – by which time the Christmas hearth is beckoning once again.

The brief Méditation is rather moving, an epitaph to the head of the Conservatoire in Moscow. Tchaikovsky’s response has a noble beauty.

Performance verdict

Igor Levit is ideal for The Seasons, painting each picture with beautiful detail and sensitivity. Sometimes the months run into each other, which is effective when considering the year as a whole – that’s what time does, after all!

What should I listen out for?

1:41 – the soft, contemplative beginning to the Méditation

The Seasons

8:37 – Tchaikovsky paints the comforting warmth of the fireside in January through music that is easy to listen to – though under the surface there are a few worrisome figures
15:48 – The song of the lark in March, possibly the first clue this cycle offers that it is the work of a Russian composer
24:33 – June is the best-loved month of The Seasons, and this reflective Barcarolle is cast in a similar mood to March – until the sun literally comes out in the middle (26:09),as the music changes from minor key to major key
37:25 – After the bracing horn calls of September, the shadows lengthen noticeably for October, the longest of the twelve pieces by far, stretching out like tendrils into the gathering dusk. Tchaikovsky’s music here is appreciably darker in colour, sitting lower in the piano’s register.
42:44 – November puts a brave face on October’s troubles in music that bears more than a little resemblance to Schumann. There is however a very Russian Troika at its heart (from 43:40 and heard in full at 44:20)

Encore

51:22 – Another short Tchaikovsky piano piece, the Chanson triste – a model of simplicity, beautifully played.

Want to hear more?

Tchaikovsky is generally known for his loud orchestral music – 1812 Overture and the like – so why not try something else along the more gentle line practised here? His Symphony no.1, subtitled Winter Daydreams, is well worth trying next.