Tchaikovsky Tone Poems ignite under Alpesh Chauhan

Alpesh Chauhan is a fine conductor, and the BBC Scottish orchestra is on fine form in these neglected maserpieces

Tchaikovsky Tone Poems ignite under Alpesh Chauhan

This is a gem of a disc. The regional BBC orchestras really are gems: the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has provided a couple of splendid Proms this year already (reviews: Prom 22, music by Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky; Prom 32, music by Grace Williams, Dora Pejačević and Holst), and here the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra blazes in lesser-known Tchaikovsky under the young conductor, Alpesh Chauhan. Here's Chauhan’s bio:

Born in Birmingham, Chauhan studied cello under Eduardo Vassallo at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester, before pursuing the College’s prestigious Master’s Conducting Course. He has studied with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, participated in master-classes with Juanjo Mena, Vasily Petrenko, and Jac van Steen, and was mentored by Andris Nelsons and Edward Gardner in his post as Assistant Conductor of the CBSO in 2014 – 16.

Newly appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker from the 2021 / 22 season, he is also Associate Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of Birmingham Opera Company. He frequently appears as guest conductor with acclaimed international orchestras including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre national d’Île de France, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

For this his début recording for Chandos, he has chosen a collection of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasias, alongside the Overture and Polonaise from the comic opera Cherevichki.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Ballad The Voyevoda, Op. 78, is based on Adam Mickiewicz’s poem The Ambush (Tchaikovsky read the Russian translation by Pushkin), and is the first orchestral work to include the (newly invented) celesta, which Tchakivsky had recently heard in Paris. Written 1890/91, this was Tchaikovsky's last work with a programme. A 'voyevoda' is the term for a local ruler in parts of Eastern Europe. Here a young man is in love with the voyevoda's wife. They are caught together (ironically in a farewell), and the voyevoda has his servant shoot his wife; but the servant actually shoots the voyevoda.

The form is similar to that of Francesca da Rimini and The Tempest: atmospheric music surrounding a central love episode. A descending scale “Fate” idea permeates (the same idea that permeates the last three Tchakovsky symphonies and which reaches its apotheosis in the final movement of the “Pathétique”):

La Tempête, Op. 18, from 1873 and revised in 1888, is based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. From the A-Minor of Voyevoda, we move to F-Minor. This is the storm conjured by Ariel (who is subservient to Prospero) that leads Fredinand, the protagonist, to an enchanted island. A love story ensues between Ferdinand and Miranda; a love scene leads to Prospero dvesting himself of his magical powers. The sea is a powerful force in this piece. Written in a mere two weeks, the piece is dramatic and full of dramatic excitement, the scoring masterly. The perforance is masterly, too, the BBC Scottish SO on miraculous form. The music here is expansive, and Chauhan allows the music, and its long-breathed themes, all the space in the world while nevertheless keeping the big picture in mind. Elsewhere, woodwind glitter magically. This is a fabulous performance: listen to the control of the orchestral diminuendo in the final minute of the piece and how the upper string line thereafter seems to stretch to eternity. Note, too, how the orchetsral textures are carefully managed, even at the highest dynamics:

The odd man out of this disc is the two exerpts from the ‘comic-fantastic’ opera Cherevichki (1885, “The Slippers”), the Overture and Polonaise. The glowering opening of the Overture (cast as a whole in B flat) does link to the mood of the tone poems, however, while we also, later, hear the lighness and grace of the opera:

The Polonaise blazes with light ina performance of boundless energy, but it is the next piece that forms the true climax of the disc,

Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876, based on the tale in Dante’s Inferno) was written after Tchaikovsky had attended the première of Wagner’s Ring cycle, in Bayreuth – perhaps there are hints of this in some of the brass writing. As Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev:

... isn't it odd that I should have submutted to the influence of a work of art that in general is extremely antipathetic to me?

The piece is phenomennal - of all the works on this album it is the one that should ignite more concert halls with its infernal assion (it is inspired by the fifth Canto of Dante's Divine Comedy).  Listen to the fervent excitement of this passage:

If there is one performance on this disc I find slightly disappointing, it is this one. Not everything hangs together perfectly; perhaps we are spoilt in that Stokowski's 1958 performance with the Stadium Symphony of New York transforms this piece into what is, while one listenes, surely the greatest piece of music ever written. Such, anyway, is the result of Stoko's fervent advocacy. It was released on an old Dell'Arte CD, coupled with Tchaikovsky's Hamlet; don't confuse this splendid performance with Stokowski's 1947 Carnegie Hall New York Philharmonic recording of Francesca, incidentally.

The new Chandos album was recorded in Glasgow City Halls in Surround Sound and is available as a Hybrid SACD and in Dolby Atmos spatial audio; an experience that exponentially increases enjoyment and appreciation of these fine performances. Alpesh Chauhan is a fine conductor, and the BBC Scottish orchestra is on fine form in these neglected maserpieces. Superb booklet notes by David Nice seal the deal.