It would seem that none of Tchaikovsky's music, and none of his orchestral works in particular, can have escaped circulation on records by now; two more "integral" sets of his symphonies, in fact, are on their way to us. There are, however, some student works and trivia from his maturity that have not circulated much, and one or two of these items may not have been recorded at all until as recently as last year, when Aleksandr Lazarev and the USSR Symphony Orchestra taped the collection of Tchaikovsky Marches and Overtures just issued here on ABC Classics AY-67003. In the process of offering these gap-filling odds and ends, the Russian musicians remind us that in their country it is not only history that gets rewritten by politicians.
The one familiar piece in this collection is the famous Marche Slave (which persists in being listed by its French title, it appears, because "Slavonic March" sounds so drab). Because it is so familiar, anyone listening to this performance is likely to be thrown by what happens at the point where Tchaikovsky cites the Tsarist national hymn: the tune is replaced by something else, and the something else does not fit very well.
The Tsarist hymn, evidently forbidden in any form now, figures more prominently in the 1812 Overture , and the Soviets have been doing the same thing with that piece, which is probably why there is not at present a single recording of it from the USSR on any record label available in this country. While the musico-political authorities in Moscow can argue that Tchaikovsky's use of the tune in the 1812 was historically inaccurate (the hymn was not composed till 1833), they surely recognize the impracticality of offering a doctored version of so famous a score. In the Marche Slave there is no question of historical accuracy: the tune was the national hymn at the time Tchaikovsky wrote that piece as a gesture of Russo-Serbian solidarity. In any event, he used the tune as an integral component in both works, and any substitution is bound to be jarring. This sort of thing goes a good deal farther, after all, than the replacement of the text in a vocal work.
Tchaikovsky cited the hymn again, more briefly, in one of the two lesser-known marches on the new disc, the Coronation March he composed in 1883 for Alexander III. In its place this time there is no substitute tune: the orchestra simply pads with "oom-pahs." Since this march was created in honor of a Tsar, one wonders that it is performed at all - far better to have left it on the self than make such an emendation. (As it happens, the Coronation March, not only intact, but performed somewhat more brightly, turns up in a new march miscellany played by the Cincinnati Pops under Erich Kunzel on Turnabout TV 34715.)
No one could suggest that the Coronation March (whose principal theme sounds like a blustering burlesque of the "Hallelujah" chorus in Handel's Messiah has any value beyond a certain historical interest (for which reason the emendation is especially deplorable); the Jurists' March of 1885 is a somewhat more respectable piece and Lazarev does it to a turn. Here there are strong and unmistakable Tchaikovsky characteristics in the orchestral writing, reminding us that the Fifth Symphony and The Sleeping Beauty were just around the corner.
The two overtures which complete this program, each nearly a quarter-hour long, are concert pieces without descriptive titles but cast in a very dramatic frame. One, in F major, was composed for small orchestra in 1865, promptly performed, then rescored for larger orchestra and reintroduced the following year. The other, in C minor, was composed during the same period but not performed until 1931. Neither is in any way distinguished, but it is always intriguing to discover what sort of music so great a master as Tchaikovsky was turning out before he became so great a master.
Some of the craftsmanship is already apparent, and the coloring is quite imaginative, but the substance is very thin in both overtures and the melodic gift for which this composer is especially revered is barely hinted at. Here and there in the F major one might hear a very dim pre-echo of one of Tchaikovsky's very last scores, the music for the ballet The Nutcracker , while in the C minor, which reuses some material from the still earlier Overture to Ostrovsky's play The Storm , might be taken for something by Glazunov.
Lazarev must be admired for doing just about all that can be done for both of these pieces (a good deal more, surely, than his compatriot Veronika Dudarova did for the F major on Melodiya/Angel SR 40271 two years ago), and the sound is quite decent, but everyone involved in the gratuitous revision of the two marches ought to be downright embarrassed.