Tchaikovsky the Romantic miniaturist from a distinguished Chinese pianist, renowned for his Bach and Chopin.
While we associate Tchaikovsky with music of virtuoso power and difficulty, sweeping up audiences with the fire of the Violin Concerto and First Piano Concerto, he also applied himself to music for the ever-growing market of amateur music-makers during his lifetime. Like many other great composers, he knew how to write for musicians of moderate ability without compromising or simplifying the individuality of his voice as a composer.
Also like many great composers, regularly finding himself in grim financial prospects, he tapped into a reliable source of income by supplying publishers who had a seemingly limitless market for music composed with amateur musicians in mind, especially by the acknowledged masters of their day. Both of the cycles recorded here by Yuan Sheng were produced for this market, comprising short pieces, most of them quite simple on the page, but thoroughly imbued with quintessentially Tchaikovskian qualities.
As part of his Piano Classics discography, Yuan Sheng recorded The Seasons – Tchaikovsky’s best known solo piano cycle – in 2017. The album was widely welcomed for its serious approach to music which is too often treated trivially. Likewise, he invests these cycles with an authentic delicacy of touch and gravity of expression – in Tchaikovsky, tears are never very far away.
Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album Op. 39, is a collection of twenty-four pieces for children studying the piano. Inspired by Schumann’s Album for the Young Op. 68, these pieces are musically satisfying with imaginative titles and settings. The set contains a number of character pieces using a great variety of moods and scenes. The pieces are based on themes with familiar places and sounds, narrative elements, and international musical styles. Character pieces, short works that reference something non-musical such as a person or a place, were quite popular in the Romantic period and made excellent pedagogical works, inspired by familiar places and sounds that children would be acquainted with at this time and still today.
Tchaikovsky’s 12 Pieces, Op. 40 are a set of works he composed between February – April 1878, immediately before he began work on his Children’s Album, Op. 39. The works contain a variety of moods and dances of moderate difficulty, providing a much-needed distraction for Tchaikovsky from the large-scale works he was producing at the same time (the violin concerto and the Grande Sonata for piano). They contain two mazurkas, two waltzes, a Danse Russe, a scherzo, chanson triste, Song without Words and a fiercely difficult Etude: all vintage Tchaikovsky in melodious charm and clever wit, relatively unknown and a valuable addition to the repertoire.
Chinese pianist Yuan Sheng is particularly known as one of the foremost Bach players of today (he is recording the complete Bach keyboard works for Piano Classics), yet he has an amazingly wide repertoire. His 3-CD set with major Chopin works (Complete Ballades, Preludes, Nocturnes and Impromptus, PCL0049) played on historical instruments made a big impact and received excellent reviews.