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Tchaikovsky & Kodály

"Ranks among the great chamber-music recordings of the postwar era." 
                                                       - Terry Teachout, Commentary

Pytor Il'yich Tchaikovsky
Trio in a minor, Op. 50 (1882)

Zoltán Kodály
Duo for Violin and Cello, Op 7 (1914)
 

Artists:

Wu Han (piano), Da-Hong Seetoo (violin), David Finckel (cello)
 

 


Notes on the Music:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in a minor, Op. 50 (1882)

The two works on this recording, although separated by only about thirty years, reflect strikingly different musical viewpoints: the Tchaikovsky Trio is romantic and retrospective, the Kodály Duo modern and forward-looking.

The Trio in a minor of Peter Tchaikovsky, in a line of descent from composers of the German romantic school -- Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms -- was probably "inspired" by the deaths of two important Russian composers within one week of each other: Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky's long-time mentor and confidant, on the 23rd of March, 1881, and Modest Mussorgsky five days later on the 28th. In the summer of that year, a further "motivation" came from Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patroness and correspondence-friend who wrote to him from Paris, "Why, Peter Ilyich, haven't you composed a piano trio? I regret it every day, because we play trios so frequently here, and I sigh to think that there is none from you." (By the way, the pianist in Mme. von Meck's resident trio was none other than the young Claude Debussy.)

The combination of instruments in a piano trio is actually not one that Tchaikovsky particularly favoured, as he replied, "I cannot hear a mixture of piano with violin or cello. It seems to me that these timbres do not blend with each other, and I assure you that it is a torture for me to listen to a trio or a sonata for these instruments." Yet just a few months later, Tchaikovsky had a change of heart and mind and began composing his a minor Trio in December, as he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck at that time, "Do you know what I am composing now, my dear? You will be amazed. You once asked me to write a trio for piano, violin, and cello, and perhaps you remember my reply? I wrote then that I had an aversion to this combination of instruments. And now, despite this, I suddenly have resolved to attempt what I had avoided in this area until now. The beginning of the Trio is already drafted. Whether I will carry it to the end, whether I will succeed, I do not know. I do hope very much that I will succeed. I will not deny that it cost me a great deal of effort to cast my musical thoughts into a form that is new and unusual for me. But I want to come out as a victor from all the difficulties, and the awareness that you will be satisfied spurs me on."

Tchaikovsky's a minor Piano Trio, Op. 50, dedicated "à la memoire d'un grand artiste" -- to the memory of a great artist, Nikolai Rubinstein, has an unusual formal design, with two movements, "Pezzo elegiaco" and "Tema con variazione". The work, started in December, 1881 and completed on the 13th of January, 1882, begins with the "Pezzo elegiaco" -- elegiac piece, a title which expresses Tchaikovsky's state of mind over the deaths of his aforementioned colleagues (and even, possibly, over the assassination of Czar Nicolas II, which took place in the same month). The wistful theme that opens the trio -- first played by the cello, followed by the violin and the piano -- establishes the tone and character of the entire work with an expression of sorrow that appears as well at the very end, in the guise of a Chopinesque funeral march. Tchaikovsky's use of a question-and-answer dialogue among the instruments in the first movement is very effective; and the extensive mood and tempo changes -- there are no fewer than sixteen different indications including seven with specific metronome markings, and in addition an admonition on the first page of Tchaikovsky's handwritten score that, "Artists who expose themselves to 'pain' in playing this work are requested to follow the composer's metronomic settings very precisely" -- all testify to the deep emotional significance of the composition for Tchaikovsky himself. Dramatic contrast also plays an important role in this first movement of the a minor Trio: tense, restless and driving passages are followed by moments of relaxation and relief. Towards the middle of the movement, a violin cadenza leads into a mournful "Adagio con duolo" (with grief and sorrow); and after some lively Schumannesque passages, the first movement ends quietly, in a mood of repose and contemplation.

The second movement is comprised of two sections. The first is a set of eleven variations on a theme which probably had some special meaning for or association with Nikolai Rubinstein; and the variations themselves are supposed to reflect or portray aspects of his life. They range in mood from playful to pompous and include a troika/sleigh-ride (Variation 5), a typical Tchaikovskian waltz (Variation 6), and a fugue (Variation 8), which leads into the ninth variation, marked "Andante flebile" (plaintive, mourning), with the further indication, "lamentoso". After a lively Mazurka (Variation 10), the first part of this movement ends with a quiet recollection of the opening theme.

The second section of the movement, "Variazione Finale e Coda" -- in effect, the last (twelfth) variation on this theme -- is marked "Allegro risoluto e con fuoco" (energetic, with fire), and reminds the listener of Robert Schumann's Symphonic Etudes in spirit and character (and even, to a certain extent, thematically). A sense of excitement builds, through interesting harmonic modulations, to a climax, which is unexpectedly interrupted by an "Andante con moto", with the return of the theme which opened the first movement ("Pezzo elegiaco") of the trio.

From here on, the mood deepens and darkens until the final thirteen bars, which contain the unusual marking "Lugubre". Here, the piano plays the rhythm of a funeral march (reminiscent of the one in Chopin's b-flat minor Sonata) while the strings, "piangendo" (weeping), repeat the elegiac melody which opened the work, as Tchaikovsky's a minor Trio comes, "poco a poco morendo" (dying out, little by little), to an end.
 

Zoltán Kodály (1822-1967)
Duo for Violin and Violoncello, Op. 7 (1914)

In 1914, thirty-two years after Tchaikovsky completed the a minor Trio, Zoltán Kodály composed his Duo for Violin and Violoncello, Op. 7, a work which displays not only the similarities in the technical capabilities of both instruments but also highlights their contrasting expressive and tonal qualities as well. This highly original piece may very well be one of the first scored specifically for these two instruments and probably served as an inspiration and precedent for Maurice Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Violoncello completed eight years later in 1922. Actually, one could make a case here for "mutual" influences, since there are several passages throughout the Kodály work (especially in the first and second movements) which are reminiscent of the music of Debussy and Ravel -- especially their string quartets, written in 1893 and 1902 respectively. In fact, one of the most significant experiences in Kodály's life was his encounter with the works of Debussy when he spent time in Paris in the spring of 1907; and Kodály's later development was clearly influenced by Debussy's music, as well as by the Hungarian folksongs which he collected throughout his life. As his fellow countryman and colleague, Béla Bartók wrote: "Kodály's compositions are characterized by rich melodic invention and a perfect sense of form... His music is based on the principle of tonal balance. His idiom is new: he says things that have never been uttered before... and possesses striking individuality." The Duo for Violin and Violoncello, Op. 7 reflects these very qualities: Kodály's melodic gifts, his sense of balance and proportion, and his ability to achieve striking new effects through relatively simple musical means.

From the outset, Kodály -- who played violin, viola and cello himself -- uses three techniques to achieve a variety of possibilities from the violin and cello: imitation, question-and-answer, and unison. The thematic exchanges between the two instruments, which open the work, lead into impressionistic octave passages. One hears reminiscences of Debussy and Ravel throughout the first movement, which ends in a somewhat melancholy, introspective manner.

The second movement, Adagio, reveals a striking, almost percussive effect in the cello which precedes the dramatic Andante section; and once again, there is a passage which reflects the influence of Debussy (possibly from the string quartet) on Kodály, followed by a cello solo, marked "appassionata", before the movement ends pianissimo. After the solo-violin recitative, "in a free improvisatory style", which opens the third movement, a Hungarian-inspired folk melody appears in the guise of a children's song (with a repeated-note cello theme), which begins the Presto section. There is imitation throughout and suggestions of Bartók's Rumanian Folk Dances, which were composed around the same time. Along with Bartók, Kodály was one of the creators of an art music based on folk sources, and Bartók himself described Kodály's works as "the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit."

©1996 Dr. Steven E. Paul

Behind the Scenes
Tchaikovsky Trio - Kodály Duo

The Tchaikovsky-Kodály disc is a testament to the phenomenal abilities of Da-Hong Seetoo. After hearing these performances it is almost impossible to believe that Da-Hong plays the violin only in his spare time. Even more outrageous is the fact that he simultaneously engineered the recording.

We played both works in concert at New York's Weill Recital Hall just prior to making this disc. It was our first concert together as a trio. In preparation we made many rehearsal tapes, and from this the idea for making a real recording evolved naturally. The practice taping enabled the recording go quickly -- the Tchaikovsky was done in one continuous 12-hour session at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Kodály was recorded at a church in New Jersey between the hours of midnight and 6am.

This recording is also a testament to the violin maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz. Both cello and violin were made by him. The violin is the first instrument of Sam's that I heard, and is the one that inspired me to commission a cello from him. So, in a way, the violin fathered the cello.

The piano is a magnificent Hamburg Steinway owned and maintained by technician Mary Schwendeman in New York. Mary always has a couple of pianos on hand which she keeps in first-class form. Her instruments are in constant demand for concerto appearances and recordings by pianists from all over the world. We picked the recording time to coincide with Mary's piano already being at the Academy. Mary stood by for the entire session, fine-tuning the instrument between every take.

Da-Hong continues to play trios with us annually, and he participates in several chamber music festivals throughout the year. Wu Han and I, as well as everyone who hears him, would love to see him play more violin -- our only fear is that he might be too successful and that we'll lose our engineer!