Tchaikovsky's solo piano output has never received accolades or even much popularity. After encountering Leslie Howard's monumental Tchaikovsky: Piano Sonatas recording, I developed a new appreciation for Tchaikovsky's piano writing. Those three sonatas contain, in my opinion, Tchaikovsky's greatest achievements for solo piano. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky loses respect in the solo piano genre because of the countless and rather mediocre miniatures he composed. This recording explores those miniatures, but while some pieces seem unremarkable, others have plenty to offer, even if it's just a pleasant diversion.
The Seasons share the same opus number with his magnificent third Sonata in G major. But that excellent work has nothing in common with these minor salon pieces. I must confess, though, that Ilona Prunyi's interpretations are the only one's I know; essentially, this is the first time I've heard The Seasons. Some were impressive and memorable: the March Song of the Lark, the June Barcarolle, and the October Autumn Song. But the rest are just "ok" and pleasant enough to the ear. It would be an incredible understatement to say that Tchaikovsky has a way with melody. Sometimes it's spellbinding. The convincing Song of the Lark, with its haunting song and bird-like inflections is a good example. And I'm won over like the next man with the beautiful June Barcarolle, one of the most remarkable of the set. While the Song of the Reaper and The Hunt express some insignificant but innocent ideas, the Autumn Song returns to the lyrical glories of the Barcarolle. Tchaikovsky's wonderful melancholy, and perhaps more specifically, Prunyi's handling of this melancholy, imprints an alluring mark on this piece.
Aside from The Seasons, this recording features four other miniatures, some that, with the exception of the famous Nocturne in C sharp minor, might be considered rarities. The seductive Chanson triste in G minor from Tchaikovsky's Op. 40 is an all-too-brief work of a reflective mood; nothing special here, yet quietly pleasing. Both of the Songs Without Words recorded here were a little disappointing, though. Their themes are dull and unimaginative. But I think the Nocturne in C sharp minor is the better example of Tchaikovsky's talent. There is a type of beautiful and mournful repose to this work and I think it easily matches Field. In hindsight, after listening to other piano pieces on Naxos's Tchaikovsky: Piano Music, Vol.2, I think this Nocturne is one of his best piano miniatures. Ilona Prunyi's velvet touch and songful phrasing gives the piece a serenity that still echoes in the mind after it's over.
Bottom line: This is not a good showcase for Tchaikovsky's piano music. But it was never meant to be. The Seasons and the other miniatures sprinkled in at the end are simply calm, pleasing, and indistinctive pieces for the piano. For more "Sturm und Drang," I implore the Tchaikovsky novice to sample his Piano Sonatas instead. If melodious but dynamically staid pieces appeal, then you can still find some delectable flowers in this barren soil (March, June, and October from The Seasons, and the Nocturne in C sharp minor).