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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Les saisons, op.37b (1875-6) [43:21]
Romance, op. 5 (1868) [5:31]
Natha-valse, op. 51, no. 4 (1882) [2:56]
Dumka: Russian rustic scene, op. 59 (1886) [9:17]
Impromptu (Momento lirico), op. posth. (1892) [3:11]
Valse sentimentale, op. 51, no. 6 (1882) [4:24]
Dialogue, op. 72, no. 8 (1893) [3:49]
Un poco di Chopin, op. 72, no. 15 (1893) [3:12]
Kol颾el’naya pesnya [Cradle Song] op. 16, no. 1 (?1872, transcr. Paul Pabst) [4:15]
Boris Bloch (piano)
rec. live, 2018, New Hall, Folkwang University of Arts, Essen; unnamed studio.

Though entitled ‘Piano works volume 9’, this refers to Boris Bloch’s series for Ars Produktion, every one of which CDs features a different composer. This one is devoted to Tchaikovsky and is particularly welcome as there aren’t many such. Why? Hinson and Roberts’ Guide to the pianistic repertoire, 4th edition 2014, states ‘Tchaikovsky was much more successful with ballet and symphonic scores than with works for the piano, although some of them do have a certain “period charm.”’ I’ll come back to that later. The Seasons gets star billing on this CD cover, being the longest and best known of its works. Ars Produktion uses German titles but, in the heading, I use the New Grove ones and, in this review, to be more friendly, English ones. I consider the pieces in the CD order of presentation.

The Seasons is a rare example of serialised (not serial) composition. Rather like Dickens’ novels, Tchaikovsky was given the task of contributing, in his case, a piano piece every month in 1876 to the journal Nuvellist, all titles suggested by its editor Nikolai Bernard, who also added epigraphs by various poets. To what extent Tchaikovsky followed these is debatable, but they suggest a starting point for considering Tchaikovsky’s ‘characteristic scenes.’ From the twelve, I’ve selected four which I feel are particularly evocative and this enables me to compare the interpretation of Boris Bloch, born in Odessa, with that of Pavel Kolesnikov, born in Siberia, recorded in 2013 (Hyperion CDA 68028). Hinson and Roberts, as it happens, suggest the pieces are ‘more effective when performed individually.’

My first selection is of January, By the fireside. Tchaikovsky wondered if this was too long: six of the twelve pieces are between four and six minutes. This one has a lovely contented, stable opening but a central section which is obsessive, unstable and also of interest as the foundation of Tatyana’s letter scene in Eugene Onegin. The epigraph from Pushkin refers to “peaceful bliss” but also “twilight”, a dying fire and candle burnt out, so what does imagination make of that? Bloch starts mellow and cosy, with an easy flow to the apex of the opening melody. Yet cosy isn’t comatose; in a second phase (tr. 1, 0:30) there’s a quickening of alertness before return to the opening calm. The third phase, Meno mosso and Molto espressivo (1:23) is the central section headed by a five-note descending and softening figure followed by leggierissimo fluttering and the link is made with a world of fantasy. That figure is insistent, haunting, mesmerising and gives way to a combination of alarm and hope: you appreciate why Tchaikovsky made further use of its dramatic potential. Then it’s back to the opening with a bit of fantasy mixed in the close.

Bloch’s account brings initial warmth, tension of alertness, a feeling of being under the grip of forces not understood. Kolesnikov begins and is always gentler with the contented material: it is marked soft, but I like that Bloch gives more air to those apexes of the melody. Kolesnikov points up more the contrasts of tempo and mood, so his second phase is suddenly faster, his central section descending figure has an immediately dolorous feel, Kolesnikov’s mellifluous fluttering around it making it seem more sinister. You’re left at the end of that section feeling adrift and desolate. Timing the whole at 5:26 to Kolesnikov’s 5:13, just a little more breadth from Bloch brings more feel of continuity of experience.  I feel more content with Bloch’s opening. I like the difference of articulation of new yet unthreatening experience in his second phase. I also appreciate the continuity in that somehow the third phase emerges from the second, but not as a sudden presentiment. The drama thereafter from Bloch is complex, yet the descending figure nevertheless soothing and then itself transformed, and so it returns in the coda.

My second selection is of February, Shrove Tuesday Carnival, which couldn’t be more different in its hubbub and animation. Bloch’s performance is uninhibited in its rousing quality, propelled forward with zest and zip, giving the impression that all is slightly chaotic, though the playing isn’t. Less abandoned, Kolesnikov is a little distanced from the throng whereas Bloch is in the middle of it. However, with Kolesnikov you are more aware of the piece’s structure. If you think of the opening theme and refrain as a rondo, the passage headed by four descending semiquavers and two rising quavers, the descent echoed in the left hand (tr. 2, 0:20 in Bloch), is the first episode. The central passage (1:10) is the second episode which contains the work’s strongest contrast of public, splashing grandeur and delicate, musing detail at the heart of the carnival, individually experienced. Yet behind such moments of relief flourishes another surge of naked energy. Kolesnikov’s close sounds little more than f where Bloch gives us Tchaikovsky’s fff.

My third selection is of October, Autumn song, yearning and sorrow felt amid the dying flourish of summer: Andante doloroso e molto cantabile, Tchaikovsky approaching Chopin but less dramatically stressful, more soulful eloquence, more operatic. Bloch takes time with the Andante, yet it’s poised and deeply felt in its angular lines as well as the echoing duet elements between the left and right hands. Bloch brings a sense of clinging on to the happier aspects before a close which faces ineluctable decline. Kolesnikov makes more of the soft opening and thereby achieves more pathos, but whether you want so much tearfulness is a moot point. The poise he achieves between the hands is moving but the slightly slower tempo, timing at 5:40 to Bloch’s 5:25, pictures one totally absorbed in his own world whose shape is thereby more difficult to discern.

My next selection is of November, In the troika, that conveyance headed by three horses, something between a sleigh and a chariot. Yet what feelings it evokes in Tchaikovsky: a wonderfully open air, Allegro moderato soaring first melody in Bloch’s hands and appreciable ornateness of line as if looking at the beauty of the carriage and horses in a romantic glow. The second melody, Grazioso (tr. 11, 1:21) is all fun and energy; having gazed, you enjoy the momentum which touches on the frantic. Then the two themes are combined, the right hand with the staccato energy, the left with the first theme poco marcato, which makes it tougher, yet still proud.

Instead of Kolesnikov, I here compare it with a famous earlier recording made by Sergey Rachmaninov in 1928 (Naxos Historical 8.112058). He presents the first theme with a lovely, open tone which is calmer, purer, less fruity than Bloch’s and has great breadth and majesty. His second theme is also quieter, but its softer elements (and he provides more dynamic contrast than Bloch) are more jocular. His energetic passages are more scintillant, though when the first theme appears alone in the final section, he does relax it arguably overmuch. Rachmaninov’s timing is 3:49, Bloch’s is 3:14. Overall Bloch has more clarity of phrasing and is enjoyably more irreverent in the second theme.

The Romance, op. 5 is a bittersweet Andante cantabile, though it opens dolce. Bloch ignores the ornamentation in the third phrase to bring more delight and variety to its appearance in the fourth. The F minor ambience isn’t altogether pervasive: by the time we reach the sunny second part of the melody (tr. 13, 0:26) the leaps at the end of its phrases (0:31) positively beam, though the ensuing climax still has a dysfunctional feel. A central Allegro energico (1:52) is built on a fast march motif in the bass and Bloch gets up a terrific head of steam, perhaps a lady’s affair with a soldier, attaining the height of passion then tempo grinding to a bereft sorrow in isolation. The opening returns with busier accompaniment including echoes, as if unquiet recollections of past activity which fuel the present sorrow, yet becoming calmer. I like Bloch’s soft climax on A flat (4:24), though some editions have a loud one. The ‘soldier’ material returns, quieter, a lesser memory, but we’re left with, under the spotlight, a close of pure beauty and pain.

The Natha-Valse, op. 51, no. 4, in Bloch’s hands depicts Natha, the niece by marriage of Tchaikovsky’s sister Aleksandra, to have been a real live wire. A soft, glittering Moderato start but often aspiring to the heavens, soon faster (tr. 14, 0:10), then breaking out in its second section, Moderato assai and loud (0:20), in Bloch’s case explosively loud, into devil-may-care vigour incorporating violent semiquaver cascades. The relief of a quieter third section (0:53) is tempered by it being a little faster, a quickening of expectation or fear, with leaps added in its repeat and heightened by the transfer of the melody to the left hand and baritone register (1:19) and in turn more passionate take-up by the right hand (1:25). Then all’s calm again with the return to the opening of this section and really creamy, graceful leaps by Bloch in its repeat. Finally comes the return of the first and second sections, so we end with Bloch’s fireworks.

Dumka (Russian village scene), op. 59, is considered by Hinson and Roberts ‘probably Tchaikovsky’s most substantial and successful piano solo.’ The subtitle suggests a pictorial quality which is present but the original title, ‘Rhapsody’, suggests there’s more to this piece, which is indeed a tour de force. The opening Andantino cantabile melody from Bloch has a stateliness and antique quality as a formal dance, yet at the beginning of its second part (tr. 15, 0:30) the sustained high tessitura introduces an element of protest and pain. Next it goes into a freefall of musing quaver runs (1:03), beautifully played by Bloch, followed by semiquaver ones (1:16). At 1:25 the theme returns in the left hand, marcato la melodia, so we now get simultaneous presentation of theme and fantasia which, as the former grows louder and lower in tessitura, becomes earthier. By the Con anima section (2:41), the dance has grown more ornate but has also taken on a more rustic, pesante element (2:46) and then a frolicking, giocoso one (3:27) and in turn a rather crazed brillante one (3:38). The perspectives continue to change: more or less clomping suddenly moves to a high tessitura visionary expanse poco meno mosso (4:08). A cadenza is just a transition to the stomping Moderato con fuoco (5:37) with elements of the original theme bursting forth. The frenzy burns itself out and we’re left, as postlude, with the original theme soft and cantabile, with more dignity, that of endurance, in this simpler form than previously. It becalms to a pp repose, but then suddenly to close come three ff chords. Of what? Affirmation or defiance?

I compared this with Peter Donohoe (Signum Classics SIGCD594), recorded in 2018. Timing at 8:12, he’s a deal faster than Bloch’s 9:12. This makes for a smoother opening of beautiful sound, a more stylish than stately dance. No protest in the higher tessitura, but a slightly softer repeated phrase indicates some sadness and the ‘fantasia’ running quavers seem to throw a spotlight on this, the semiquavers make it more insistent and the return of the melody in the left hand has more edge and the whole piece more sense of cumulating excitement. Donohoe’s Con anima section is daintier, as even is his pesante. Bloch sounds more Russian, but Donohoe is undeniably absorbing in his highly rhythmic approach. His giocoso element is beamingly happier, his brillante one carefree in its craziness. Donohoe’s momentum is enthralling, but the poco meno mosso is then insufficiently contrasted to bring out the visionary quality that Bloch does. Donohoe’s Moderato con fuoco, however, has more weight and breadth. On the other hand, I find Donohoe’s postlude less satisfying than Bloch’s. It’s very plain, as if determined to show only the bare outline, but this misses Bloch’s dignity and instead of Bloch’s ff close he prefers something just a bit gruff and, maybe, jocular.

Momento Lirico, op. posth., is an Impromptu in A flat with a Schubertian simplicity and attractiveness, managing to play out its opening phrase through eight sequences without boredom. Bloch makes the melody, in the right hand in the opening section, expressive and nuanced, a slight crescendo and pointed diminuendo working well. But for me, the left hand is too apparent as it always enters a quaver after the right, the offbeat making for a somewhat cumbersome momentum. I turn to other interpreters to see how they deal with this balance between the hands. Valentina Lisitsa recorded in 2018 within her survey of the complete piano music (Decca 4834417) is the most effective, but at the cost of being quite fast and rather hectic, timing the piece at 2:36 to Bloch’s 3:09. Even slower than Bloch, at 3:17, Franco Trabucco in a complete survey published in 2010 (Dynamic CDS 665) gives more emphasis to the melodic line which makes for more comfortable listening. In the piece’s second section (tr. 16, 0:57) the melody moves to the left hand, a new one in a downward phrase in sequences, whereas that of the first section was upward. In low register and a touch of lingering, Bloch shows it to be mellow and reflective before it takes on longing and disquiet. Trabucco is more insistent in this latter, haunting quality. The first section is now repeated and all seems contented again, but with a poco a poco crescendo ed accelerando the innocent sequences move to a climactic affirmation, very positively displayed in the right hand by Bloch. Now there’s an expressive coda (2:14), a fond farewell largely offbeat intervention free and with a gently lapping left hand. Trabucco makes it flow a little more easily than Bloch.

The Sentimental Waltz, op. 51, no. 6, is indeed for Bloch self-absorbed, impelled forward by its opening phrase, pausing briefly at the top of its leap, then falling. In its second section (tr. 17, 0:46) Bloch muses happily in spinning its twirling sequences, then readily elides back to the opening. I’d prefer more contrast in the tranquillo third section (1:30): the p dynamic more marked and a smoother tempo, though Bloch does make a strong contrast at the marcato loud repeat in the bass in octaves (1:48) against right-hand rising chords which bring to mind the opening of Piano Concerto 1. Bloch keeps a gliding quality in reserve for the return of the opening section, just as the showy apotheosis is kept for that section’s climax in the coda which thereafter plunges into the depths of self-pity. I compare this with Vladimir Feltsman, recorded in 2011 (Nimbus Alliance NI 6162). Timing at 5:01 to Bloch’s 4:21, his opening is more poised and seductive, with a toying quality to the dance progression. But his tranquillo section I feel floats overmuch and l like that in the loud repeat Bloch makes the right-hand contribution of equal weight as the left, whereas Feltsman rather suppresses it. So, I prefer Bloch’s overall balance.

Dialogue, op. 72, no. 8 (tr. 18) for me charts a tempestuous relationship. An assertive lady, piano in the soprano register, quasi parlando, very forward and energetic, gets a laid-back, stalling response from her man in baritone register, who wants a quiet, contemplative time. At 1:01 the lady, espressivo e grazioso, becomes more pleading and sustained and the man has a fuller response, dolce espressivo at 1:28, showing an ability to appreciate life and its sorrow, whereupon a fluent, impassioned duet ensues, climaxing ff appassionato ed un poco rubato, all of which Bloch gives us at 2:26. But are this couple listening to one another? Apparently not, as by the close there are spiky retorts at close quarters. An undeniably dramatic and also poignant piece, yet how supercharged by Bloch and Tchaikovsky within such a short time frame. Feltsman at almost the same tempo gives us an amazingly smoother ride. His lady is sorrowing from the outset, his gentleman warmer in empathy. In duet they show a wistful togetherness. This is all realized very beautifully, yet for me Feltsman’s appassionato climax doesn’t work; there’s not the sense of preparation and inevitability that Bloch brings. Feltsman’s climax is somehow formal and thereby a little contrived.

A bit of Chopin, op. 72, no. 15 (tr. 19), Tempo di Mazurka, begins mf with a florid and bittersweet melody, the floridity in the semiquavers in triplets. This is rather thrust aside by Bloch with a strong forte ‘pull yourself together’ march response, though with still some semiquavers in triplets thrown in. Is this a lady versus a man again? At 1:02 there’s a new mood, a kind of compromise treading water. At 1:17 this just provokes an unending stream of semiquaver triplets in high register and both claims are then repeated: a contented, sedate sort of dance and a brainstorm scurry, but the end of the latter glides into what seems a happier, more open and accepting version of the first theme. Yet Bloch’s man’s response is also brighter and this wouldn’t be easy to live with. He adds an octave leap to the final melodic note which isn’t in the K鰊emann Music Budapest urtext.

I compare this with Sviatoslav Richter recorded in 1983 (Alto ALC 1393). Timing at 3:24 to Bloch’s 3:09, he’s easier to live with. The opening theme is lighter and elegant, the response just a little louder, dapper as if not a different person but the same one quite suddenly in a different mood. Richter uses rubato masterfully mid phrases through the piece to convey frequent changes of mind. What I call the ‘compromise mood’ with Bloch has attractive bounce from Richter and the chains of semiquaver triplets following are just lightly tripping and, in this, truly Chopinesque. On the other hand, with Richter the return of the opening theme is now more thoughtful and by the close really wistful; no octave leap here.

You might like to regard Bloch’s final track as an encore of personal significance as it’s not fully a Tchaikovsky piano piece but Paul Pabst’s transcription of his Cradle Song, op. 16, no. 1, which Bloch played the day he received the news of Galina Vishnevskaya’s death because she sang that song ‘inimitably’. Bloch’s booklet notes have a number of such links that explain his choice of pieces and the intensity with which he plays them. However, in this case, I have two reservations. First, the original text set and Vishnevskaya’s voice add another dimension. There’s a 1975 recording of her singing the piece with Mstislav Rostropovich accompanying on the piano (Warner Classics download 3650082). Vishnevskaya marvellously combines plaintiveness, resilience and a poignant element of resignation. Rostropovich is far gentler with Tchaikovsky’s original writing for the piano here than Bloch’s realization of Pabst’s left-hand accompaniment, which for me is over busy, writhing and in danger of getting in the way of the clear and hauntingly eloquent right-hand melody. On the other hand, this is no more than Bloch pulling out all the stops in enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky’s piano writing which consistently throughout this disc is so vivid and involves many knockout performances. I promised to come back to Hinson and Roberts’ ‘period charm’. Bloch doesn’t do period charm. He much prefers barnstorming and Tchaikovsky gives him ample support. Interestingly, eleven of this disc’s tracks were recorded live in concert, nine later in the studio, but the vibrancy of Bloch’s playing remains constant. He shows Tchaikovsky’s piano music to be emphatically not just for the drawing room; there are always more external and internal elements to be savoured.

Michael Greenhalgh

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