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Charles Hazlewood on... Tchaikovsky's reputation

Updated Tuesday, 23rd January 2007

The conductor Charles Hazlewood argues that Tchaikovsky is more about passion than sugar plums.

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You might remember that Monty Python sketch when it says basically Tchaikovsky, was he a tortured genius or just a poof who wrote great tunes. Part of my mission with all of this Tchaikovsky that we’re exploring at this time is to at least assist in his, in his rehabilitation.

I’ll tell you what it’s about; it’s about conductors particularly in the years between the First and Second World War and then beyond the Second World War, some of those old dictator conductor figures. I won’t mention any names but the kind of people, Europeans, who made recordings of Tchaikovsky’s music which sold in their millions around the world and made those particular men very wealthy, which completely egged up the most saccharin and sentimental qualities of the music. And that has done such a kind of an ongoing disservice to Tchaikovsky.

And, you know, how many times has someone who perhaps loves ballet gone and seen ballet, a Swan Lake, a Sleeping Beauty, a Nutcracker, and whilst simultaneously enjoying the dance has found musical values of the lowest possible order, because that tends to be what happens in ballet. And it’s a tragedy because these are masterworks.

These pieces reinvented what classical ballet could be. Then look at Eugine Onegin or even the Queen of Spades, an extraordinary kind of detailed social realism, a kind of minute kind of exploration of what human beings do to each other and how they are within themselves. Extreme kind of psychological studies. He took the whole idea of music drama in that way way forward beyond anything that, say, Wagner had achieved. And then in the symphonies and the concertos, similarly.

What I think partly is happening with the rehabilitation now is the great interpretations and the great performances by Russian orchestras like, for instance, the Mariinsky Orchestra who now, thankfully, come to Europe, and indeed to America, and they play a good deal. It’s hearing the music, hearing the sound in the kind of bleeding way that Russians make, that only Russian orchestras can and do make the sound, that somehow gives you a sense that Tchaikovsky absolutely is not this kind of chocolate box, saccharined composer that so many of those conductor figures in the early to mid part of the 20th century would have him as. I suppose they thought that was, well it just appealed to their indulgent sort of personalities. They wanted to hijack the music and somehow make it about them and their kind of great tragic trajectory, or their ability to create wonderment. Well the music deserves more than that and, frankly, it doesn’t need egging in that way. It can speak for itself.





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