LITTLE-KNOWN MUSIC by a composer as popular as Tchaikovsky is always intriguing, and Columbia would appear to have made it doubly so by issuing The Seasons in both its original piano version and an orchestral one prepared by the Russian conductor Alexander Gark. Alexei Cherkassov plays the piano on one disc, and Yevgent Svetlanov conducts the USSR Symphony Orchestra on another, both in set MG 35184.
The title of this collection, as Leslie Gerber acknowledges in his very helpful annotation, is erroneous. The correct title for the 12 pieces is of course The Months , but as Gerber points out, The Seasons persists in the United States and Britain because of the mislabeling of the first editions of the work published in the English-speaking world. (Gerber himself is mislabeled by Columbia, which has misspelled his given name.)
The music is hardly subject to the sort of confusion that afflicts some of Tchaikovsky's other lesser-known works, such as the opera and the tone poem which are both called The Voyevoda and have nothing to do with each other either musically or programmatically, and the two early pieces called "The Storm" and "The Tempest," the latter sometimes appearing under the former title because "The Tempest" is rebdered in German as "Der Sturm " ("The Storm" is given as "Das Gewitter "). Still, there seems to be no real need to continue labeling a collection of 12 pieces with a title that clearly implies only four.
By either title, this collection is hardly well- known as a unit, though two of its individual components are familiar on their own. One of these is "June," sometimes billed simply by its "generic" title, "Barcarolle;" the other is "November," which Rachmaninoff recorded twice under its more descriptive heading, "Troika en Traineaux." Jose Iturbi put the two pieces on the same disc. The October number, known as "Autumn Song," has enjoyed a certain celebrity, too, in loads of different arranagements, among them one for vocal duet and on for clarinet. None of the other nine pieces is likely to be familiar to many listeners and none of them is really very memorable, though none is unattractive, either. One of the liabilities of the cycle is that the first six pieces have so little variety from one to the next; the July-December segment is more varied, and contains more lively material.
Gauk's orchestration is by no means the first such setting of The Months . Morton Gould recorded an effective ont of his own nearly 30 years ago on Columbia ML 4487 -- in that case under the correct title -- and there have been other versions from both Moscow and Prague. Gauk's is a very neat job, though, and the music is sensitively played under Svetlanoy (one of Gauk's several famous pupils). Cherkassov plays the original version quite winningly, too, and the sound on both discs is very smooth. I can only wonder, though, about the market for the two versions in tandem; the music is hardly another Pictures at an Exhibition , and I would think one version or the other would be enough for anyone interested in the music.
I have to wonder, too, about the significance of the three unlabeled photographs across the second panel of annotation inside the gatefold container. The second and third are pictures of Tchaikovsky, wouse presence here seems reasonable enough; preceding these is one of Alexander Scriabin, looking quite the master of the situation. The second of the two Tchaikovsky photos shows the composer wearing an expression of bafflement, as if he had just noticed Scriabin and wondered what on earth he is doing there. There is no reference to Scriabin anywhere in the notes or the labeling -- but then, he was always one for mystery, intrigue, etc.
(Columbia does this sort of thing from time to time. Under the credit for "The Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, Conductor," in "The Wagner Album," MG 30300, is a line is smaller type reading "With Fred Katz and his Orchestra." Who is Fred Katz? In which piece(s) does his orchestra participate? The name does not appear on any of the actual disc-labels and none of the music requires augmentation of the Philadelphians' own forces. Perhaps it will all be resolved with the release of "Fred Katz and His Orchestra Play Scriabin's Greatest Hits.")