Our music for this week is a performance by Sviatoslav Richter of the Nocturne in F Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
This Nocturne comes from a set of two larger books of songs that Tchaikovsky wrote while on vacation in Nice, France in the summer of 1872. This particular song is paired with a Humoresque that Tchaikovsky dashed off after hearing an amusing French dance in the marketplace near his lodgings. We do not, however, know much about the Nocturne other than that it is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s good friend, Vladimir Shilovsky. Shilovsky was an amateur singer, songwriter, poet, composer, and artist who came to study at the Moscow Conservatory under Tchaikovsky’s guidance.
As we saw last week, Richter was particularly well known for his command of a vast repertoire and his incredible ability to create colors and emotions on the keyboard. In addition to these things, however, he was also renowned for his interpretations of specific composers’ music. For instance, his recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas is widely regarded as the best recording ever made of those works. (We’ll hear some of these sonatas in the weeks to come). Along with Beethoven, he was a specialist in the music of his fellow Russians – Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and others. This recording is therefore an excellent example of Richter’s on-stage interpretive capabilities at their fullest expression.
It is amazing that such a simple Nocturne can become such a captivating and powerful story in Richter’s hands. I think we underestimate how hard that is to do. As with anything in life, it is easy to go on “auto-pilot” when the task at hand is relatively easy. Musicians certainly do this, relaxing when playing easier Mozart tunes and pouring all their energy into the complicated romantic-era works. However, Richter’s ability to draw the listener in with even a simple melody is evidence of his incredible power of concentration and devotion to every single note. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that he puts emphases on certain notes that he wants the listener to remember, and more often than not, those notes are the key harmonic guideposts for the piece as a whole.