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Eavesdropping on Tchaikovsky’s Russia

The American businessman Julius Block, who introduced the phonograph to Russia in 1889, proceeded to record many hours of music performed by the leading instrumentalists, composers, and singers of Moscow. The astounding “Block cylinders,” thought lost, were discovered in 2002 — and subsequently turned into listenable CDs by Ward Marston. For the recent Pittsburgh Symphony Tchaikovsky festival (19 events in 11 days), listening to and discussing these historic performances (and also to Tchaikovsky speaking) was a featured event.
Though already impressed by the salon performances captured by Block, I was unprepared for the impact they would attain in a public setting, juxtaposed with modern performances of the same music.
To begin with, there is Paul Pabst (1854-97) — today, barely a name. He is the first major keyboard virtuoso to leave recordings. He opens a window on the world of Liszt and Anton Rubinstein (who tenaciously refused Block’s repeated invitations to play for the phonograph). Here is Pabst, in 1895, in his own transcription of Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz — the most flamboyant reading I know. Here he is performing part of his Sleeping Beauty paraphrase, also in 1895. What certifies the brilliance of these performances, with their huge dynamic range and quicksilver nuances, is the overwhelming impression of spontaneity and ease, of unstudied fluency — a lost art. Certainly the lighter action of nineteenth century pianos is a factor. In my own lifetime, only Shura Cherkassky — a Josef Hofmann protégé who never grew up — purveyed playing of this kind.
On another cylinder (1892) Pabst and Serge Taneyev play Arensky’s Polichinelle for two pianos. Taneyev is remembered as a composer, but this is a whirlwind rendition at the highest level of virtuosity, from an era when performers and composers were one and the same. You can also listen to Arensky, at the piano, in his own D minor Trio (1894). His colleagues are Anatoly Brandukov, for whom Rachmaninoff composed his Cello Sonata, and Jan Hrimaly, who premiered two of the Tchaikovsky string quartets. Many things can be gleaned from these cylinders. To begin with, this is the most impetuous Arensky Trio imaginable — the stiffness and redundancy of this score (which remains in today’s repertory) is minimized. The two string players make no attempt to match style or sound — they are individual personalities. Arensky takes no prisoners at the piano — where he writes “fortissimo,” you get fortissimo.
A common feature of many Block cylinder performances is that the convention of a steady pulse — which we today take for granted — is nowhere in evidence. Tempo fluctuation is constant. The conductor Gianandrea Noseda, whose blistering reading of Francesca da Rimini was one high point of the Pittsburgh Symphony festival, was an onstage auditor when the Arensky Trio cylinders were heard and discussed. Noseda is an exceptionally open-minded musician, a conductor we will gratefully hear more and more of in seasons to come. The tempo changes in the Arensky performance were too much for him. If so, what is one to make of Arthur Nikisch’s historic Beethoven Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic (1913), in which no tempo stabilizes? Nikisch was the most famous symphonic conductor of his generation.
No wonder Stravinsky so stridently and dogmatically preached steady pulse and “no interpretation.” Much has been discovered in recent years by scholars resituating Stravinsky within Russian folk and classical-music traditions The Block cylinders document other powerful “Russian traditions” that Stravinsky was striving to negate.

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