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 Friday, 27 November 2015
Terry Plumeri and Tchaikovsky PDF Print
Written by Maxwell Chandler   
Thursday, 13 March 2008


Among other things, what classical music has in common with jazz is how often its history is distorted. One finds apocryphal tales repeated so often that they move beyond lore into “fact.” Often, too, for both types of music, an incident from the life or aspect of a composer’s personality are cited as impetus to their creative process. To be sure, these things are usually components that go towards forming part of their artistic process, but it is likely inaccurate to paint an entire artist’s life in such broad, sweeping strokes. Romantic era composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is a prime example of life and legend becoming firmly enmeshed, coming together in his final symphony, the “Pathetique.” A 1997 release from GMMC (Tchaikovsky/Plumeri) bring further life to the legend under the baton of contemporary conductor/composer and sometimes jazz artist, Terry Plumeri.  

Tchiakovsky—Life and Legend

Born in Votkinsk, Piotr was multi-lingual (French and German) and beginning his studies on the piano by age seven. After his father quit his government post of mining engineer, the family moved Moscow and later St. Petersburg, where Piotr was sent to boarding school, eventually studying jurisprudence. His initial separation from his family and his mother’s death from cholera when he was in his early teens proved to be particularly traumatic events for Piotr. Later he clerked four years at the Ministry of Justice, but his interest in piano and poetry shifted his attentions into that less practical existence after a lynchpin moment of seeing Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. Despite his father’s opposition, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied under Anton Rubinstein and Nicholas Zaremba.  A job as Professor of Harmony at the new Moscow Conservatory paid just fifty rubles a month, but the stimulation furthered Piotr’s foray into composing. 

Tchaikovsky’s early works had mixed success. He received constructive criticism from Mily Balakirev, who was leader of the composers group known as “The Mighty Five”, known also sometimes as “The Mighty Handful.” Balakirev provided Tchaikovsky with support both early and later in his career. Romeo and Juliet was undertaken with his moral/emotional support and Piotr’s Second Symphony (op. 17, “Little Russian,” 1872) was written as a response to what The Mighty Five was attempting to do for a purely Russian music. Meanwhile his disastrous marriage to Antonina Milyokova was short-lived, and although they never formally divorced, Piotr left after seriously contemplating suicide and suffering a nervous breakdown. After the dissolution of his marriage came a recuperative rest and a tour of Europe and the beginning of an important relationship with Nadezhda Filaretovna, who became Piotr’s patron and correspondent. Her patronage, which lasted fourteen years, allowed him to retreat within his art, concentrating on composing.  

By this time, and despite his fear of conducting, his services were in great demand. In 1892 he toured the United States and led concerts in France and England, where he was awarded a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge. He also had begun work on what would be his last symphony, destroying the first version—he was known to occasionally do numerous rewrites on some of his pieces. In February of 1893 he began a new version, which he initially called “A Programme Symphony No. 6.” The new version of his last symphony flowed from his pen far easier than its previous incarnation.  It premiered on October 16, 1893, now titled “Pathetique” (sadness). Even though Piotr wrote to many people saying he was “more proud of it than any of my other works,” it was not as wildly received during its premier, but by the time of his death another performance would be given, confirming Piotr’s assessment of the work.  

Popular lore has it that, so upset was he by the initial response to the work, he went to his brother’s afterwards and gulped down some water without taking the precaution of boiling it beforehand, dying of cholera. The composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov attended the funeral and made a point in his diary of commenting upon how they had an open casket service, allowing those in attendance to kiss Piotr goodbye, two things never allowed in the case of cholera. There has been suggestion of suicide and the fact of the symphony ending in a minor key adagio as a musical stand-in for his fading life.  

Aside from written records showing that parts of the symphony, in its initial conception, had been written a year before, this proves to be a too simplistic an approach to both the composer and his work. There is no one “thing” that enabled him to work and create such distinctive works. Neurosis and tastes which went far against the social mores of the time figured into his talent, but so did other less depressive factors. All of his adult life he was well traveled, seeing George Bizet’s Carmen performed in Paris and Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Bayreuth. Pre-revolutionary Russia during this time was still feeling the progressive ripples dating back to the reign of Peter the Great. There was art of a nationalistic flavor, such as the The Mighty Five, but influences of the West were not shunned. There was a steady cross-pollination of culture in the various arts. All these things combined with Tchiakovsky’s own natural-given talents to create a powerful body of work. 

Tchaikovsky and Plumeri

Terry Plumeri
It is different but equally varied ingredients which go into making up the recording, Tchaikovsky/Plumeri (GMMC Records), containing Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No.6” and Terry Plumeri’s “Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra.” Terry Plumeri is a composer, musician (double bass) and conductor. Initially working with them on a film score project, he now has a relationship spanning fourteen years with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra as their principal guest conductor. With them he has recorded not just the works of Tchaikovsky, but his own concert pieces as well (“Pride of Baltimore,” “Windflower” on the CD Plumeri Conducts Plumeri).  

To me, a conductor or composer who also plays an instrument has a stronger sense of tempo and its overall importance to a piece. Terry regularly plays with his jazz trio, which has given him further insight into how to deftly wield rhythm and tempo of a piece. Like a good literary translator, a conductor must submerge the ego in service of the work. Coming from the background as a composer himself, Terry has an inherent respect to perform the pieces as the composer had intended. This would seem an obvious thing but after listening to other various recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, I found wild fluctuation in tempo and varying emphasis on different instruments and parts of a passage.   

The sound throughout the CD is pristine. There is a beautiful delicacy to the Tchaikovsky piece that never becomes overly fragile. Throughout the CD the sound mixing is a refreshing change, too, as often with classical music intricately layered things do not fare well when listening in a car. Here though, there is none of the fumbling for the volume control during the soft parts. only to make a mad snatch again at the volume as the music suddenly swells.  

From the very start of the “Pathetique,” there is a sense of drama, of something which slowly unfurls. The first movement shows right off the fantastic interplay between conductor and orchestra. The stings are rich and lush, yet do not over power the rest of what’s going on. Within the main section smaller patterns emerge contributing to the whole. Flute and clarinet dance over gently plucked strings which then slowly start to sing. There is an overall lushness to this, a bouquet made up of just the right amount of flowers.  The final part of the symphony, the adagio, is perhaps the most written about. What you read into it aside, it is a thing of beauty. During different parts the cellos play underneath, serving as an almost rich burnished ocean upon which bassoon and clarinet float before again being lifted up by the sweeping wing like ascension of the violins. The voice of the horn, which answers the well known figure of the violins, sounds neither too brassy nor too far away; the sense of sonic depth being achieved with a fine subtly. The sense of tension and release is achieved in this version of “Pathetique” by a delicate layering of sounds that results in a sonic tapestry.  

The “Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra” is a perfect pairing with Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique.” Its inclusion does not change the overall feel of the album nor break the spell. While it is not a programmatic piece, it does have the feel of a tone poem. Too often modern classical leans in one of two directions: high concept avant-garde or a sort of overly simplified movie music with airs but minus the images. This concerto has a somber feel but never to the point of overly heavy.  

The concerto was written for bassoonist Kenneth Pasmanick, who also plays on the album with great aplomb. The voice of the bassoon here possesses a wistful, melancholy bent especially during its initial entrance. The contrast between the waves of strings and bassoon works well and radiates a drama that is completely organic and free of all gimmick. Perhaps because of Plumeri’s own double bass playing, throughout the concerto is an underlying sense of motion, the pulse of the music as it seems to come at you in washes of sound, sometimes just a section of the orchestra, other times all ensemble.  

The album clocks in at a little over an hour. A surprisingly unique feature of the CD is the liner notes, which reproduce letters Tchaikovsky wrote to various people about his favorite symphony. The entire CD stands up to repeated listenings. Like the most rewarding music of any genre, new things can be found upon each listen. This is a great CD to check out if you only know Tchaikovsky via Swan Lake or The Nutcracker or if you want to discover a composer still adding to his oeuvre. 

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