At the beginning of this month, in recognition of the 175th anniversary of the birth of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (born in the spring of 1840 on a date that depends upon choice of calendar), Melodiya released a complete collection of that composer’s songs in a six-CD box set. This is a compilation of recordings made between 1962 and 1990, meaning that all the recordings were made under the authority of the Soviet Union. On the basis of the catalog of Tchaikovsky’s vocal music on Grove Music Online, the collection is pretty much complete, with the possible exception of one unpublished song.
Thus, at the very least, the project is notable for having systematically assembled Russian vocalists and pianists for the effort. It is less notable in its production values for the inquiring serious listener. There are two booklets, one of which provides track listings in both English and Russian. The other contains a single background essay in Russian, English, and French. The choice of French may have also played a role in the packaging. The cover of the box refers to the collection as “romances,” which should be taken as the proper French term for art song. (Grove Music Online refers to them all as “songs,” which is probably the best standard to follow for English-speaking listeners and readers.)
More disturbing is that there is no systematic (or, for that matter, complete) account of who the vocalists or the pianists are, either by name or by background. In many respects this is more unfortunate than the absence of the texts in any language, since one can use Tchaikovsky’s Web page on The LiederNet Archive as a point of departure for tracking down useful information about authors, texts, and translations. Nevertheless, one can still appreciate the value of listening to the music for its own sake, even if the element of text semantics is kept out of reach.
From that point of view, this collection is somewhat in the same league as the complete recording of songs composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose collection on the Delphian label was discussed on this site in March of 2014. Like Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky was best known for his work with large ensembles, including operas as well as symphonies. Through his songs one gets to listen to him working in a more intimate setting; and, again like Rachmaninoff, the scope of his achievements in art song is much greater than that of his ensemble chamber music. Thus, while most serious listeners do not like to stick to the surface, so to speak, there is much one can enjoy in the surface features of these songs, even on the level of rhetoric. If only a few of the selections are familiar (as in “None but the lonely heart,” which is the last song in the Opus 6 collection of six songs), there is still much to engage such listeners.