Review

Richard Weiner

Tchaikovsky's The Seasons present an unusual challenge to the pianist. These twelve short pieces for solo piano, written in the 1875 -- the period between the premiere of the First Piano Concerto and the completion of Swan Lake -- are within the technical limits of talented amateurs. The problem for professional musicians is to express the composer's intent without imposing their own signatures. Tchaikovsky wrote few pieces for solo piano, and these works are often transformed from his work into demonstrations of the performers' virtuosity. There is a strong temptation to seek profundity in these simple works, to show off fingering velocity, or to make them overly romantic. The Seasons represent Tchaikovsky in a casual mode, and should be allowed to reflect this.
Kamilla Bystrova, who graduated from the same Moscow school that produced Richter and Gilels, strikes the right balance. Her January ("At the Fireside") is a gentle meditation, tenderly rendered. February ("Carnival") is bright, almost glistening -- but it is true to Tchaikovky's motives, not a display of Bystrova's formidable technical skill. April ("Snowdrop") is delicate without being precious. May ("Starlit Nights") begins with gentle breezes which perhaps only a Russian could appreciate. Her reading of June ("Barcarolle") finds the proper balance between sentiment and bathos.
Schumann influenced Tchaikovsky, and Bystrova conveys that throughout the work, with the German's color and tone, without making losing the Russian character. She recognizes that the twelve pieces are individual compositions, not a single lyric tone poem, and she brings out the pronounced dance roots when they're present. There have been many readings of The Seasons, stretching back to Rachmaninoff, but few have managed to convey the genius of Tchaikovsky without stamping their own imprint on the composition. In her transparent rendering of the composer's plan, Bystrova achieves her own triumph.

 

Jan de Kruijff / www.musicalifeiten.nl (translated by Joop Hoekstra)

Why did Tchaikovsky call his piano cycle The Seasons and not simply The Months - it might have been less confusing! The reason was probably not that he had never heard of Vivaldi or his opus magnum, composed over 60 years before; nor that he was unaware of Glazunov’s 1899 ballet under the same name. Alas, we do not know for sure.
To each of the twelve months a short and characterizing piece is devoted, starting with January’s At the fireside, continuing with Song of the Lark in March, Snowdrop for April (Russian winters may well last long), Harvest in August, down to Christmas in December - to mention only a few.
This cycle of compositions demands much of the piano player’s imaginative powers. Performer Kamilla Bystrova, of Russian origin but now luckily engaged by the Dutch Royal Conservatory in The Hague, is fully up to the challenge. This can hardly come as a surprise, considering her striking versatility, which shows in her adaptations for piano solo of songs by Schumann and Tchaikovsky and of Schubert’s Winterreise. And in her paintings, drawings and sculptures outside the world of music.
Bystrova appears particularly sensitive during the friendlier, more meditative pieces, which she performs in warm and crystal-clear tones: January, March, May, June and October are beautiful examples of tender tranquility. But she also does full justice to the more intense pieces, like February, July and September. At no time does one feel that any of the character intended by the composer is lacking.
Bystrova also shows initiative by the fact that her album (probably her debut) is a private release.