07 December 2022
By Guest Writer
The nights may be long but the fire is warm in this cosy miniature: set the scene with subtle tone-painting and overlapping legato, says Lucy Parham
The Seasons captures the heart and soul of Russian music. If you are familiar with Swan Lake, then you may recognise many stylistic and melodic similarities in this piano cycle which Tchaikovsky wrote in 1875-6. And don’t stop at January! Invest in a complete score of The Seasons and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. June (Barcarolle) and October (Autumn Song) are two favourites of mine but each month is a musical gem, preceded by a few lines from Russian literature or poetry, and each quotation fits perfectly with its musical counterpart.
The warmth of January is immediate from the opening bars. The piece is true to its subtitle, ‘At the fireside’, which is preceded by these words from Tolstoy:
‘A little corner of peaceful bliss, the night dressed in twilight; the little fire is dying in the fireplace, and the candle has burned out.'
The Tolstoy quotation sets the scene and directs your approach to a piece that envelops you with gentle warmth.
How to approach the opening
It’s worth taking Tchaikovsky’s expressive marking seriously. Moderato semplice ma espressivo encourages you not to press the tempo at the opening. Slurs in the RH part lend a distinctive shape to the opening phrase. These should be made clear in your playing, and the bass line should be brought out. Keep a flexible wrist through this phrase and in bar 2 note the portamento markings. Create a single, singing line from the first three bars. The chords on the second and third beats of the third bar should be voiced and weighted according to their harmonic significance.
Bar 4 requires a very special sound. You want the phrase to melt away and to contrast with the preceding bar. Try to feel the musical breaths in these opening bars. This is where space in your phrasing is essential. Bar 5 begins with a new breath, but this time follow through the phrase as if you were singing it; stopping on the first beat of each bar will halt the flow of the melody.
The next few bars develop the main theme. The melody is spreading its wings: try to create an improvisational feel in the RH. Note the poco più forte direction in bar 8 and the inversion of the melody in bar 11 – the LH staccato notes in this bar have a particular character.
Bar 12 returns to the opening slurs
I suggest practising the LH alone in this section, playing legato first and then adding the staccato articulation without making it too clipped. The slurred phrases intensify in a crescendo through to bar 18. Bring a full, espressivo tone to the chromatic descent in the RH before easing back into the main theme.
Bars 27 and 28 intensify to reach a warm forte
Lean into the tenor line and make a smooth ritardando, then a crescendo in bar 28, and don’t fade away before the subito piano at bar 29. Try thinking of this bar as a clarinet solo from one of the Tchaikovsky ballets: don’t rush it (note the meno mosso marking) and let it sing with a lovely overlapping legato. As an alternative fingering to the one marked on the score, I suggest a 4-5 finger substitution on each note in order to achieve this legato while holding down the lower notes.
Try not to force the first accent in the RH (E); it should be gently projected.
Get to the bottom of the key and overlap your legato to achieve a true cantabile. The fingertips need to be weighted and the melody must always be focused
Let’s look at the triplet figurations in bar 30
Give them a flowing, harp-like character, while playing them as evenly as possible between piano and pianissimo. Keep your elbows free so that you can play with circular motions throughout this passagework. The pp here is dark and misterioso in contrast to the comfort of the opening. The line is divided between the LH and RH. Keep the pedal down for the whole bar but define each note within it. You will see how the mood changes between bar 29 and 30 and then the subsequent two-bar repeated phrases.
From bar 35 you can feel the melody opening out
Be bold with your crescendo here and keep up the momentum over the barlines, bringing a strong sense of direction and evergrowing passion through to bar 37. Make the most of the ritardando in bar 41 and spread the triplet chord on the last beat of bar 42, as if you were playing it on a harp. Take your time here.
Pay attention at this point to the fifth finger of the LH
In bar 40, for instance, the first note of each beat is a quaver with its own melodic and harmonic significance. Tchaikovsky highlights the bass line in this way. Don’t rush bar 44; treat it rhetorically, like a cadenza, and project the written-out turn before the final triplet beat.
The phrase in bar 46 is repeated three times
Think of different ways to play each repetition. Head towards a moment of great emotional power at the climax of the phrase in bar 51. Keep the pulse strong for the poco stringendo, and use your RH fifth finger to voice the inner parts sensitively without overshadowing the melody. Finger substitutions of 3-5 and 4-5 in bar 52 will help you to achieve a smooth legato cantabile. The purpose of the accents here is to point up the top notes; they shouldn’t be aggressively handled.
Use bars 56 to 58 to make a diminuendo
The ritardando in bar 59 leads into a pause in bar 60, which you can use to create a sense of expectation before the return of the main theme in bar 61. You’ll want to make it different to the opening. The coda begins in bar 87, with a crescendo that heightens the mood towards bar 91. The LH in bar 87 provides crucial harmonic support to the melody. Sink into these bass notes and pay special attention to your LH fifth finger. The tenor line in bar 90 forms a duet with the repeated and accented A.
Note the ppp dynamic in bar 95
Sink into the bass A in the LH to give yourself a harmonic cushion. Although Tchaikovsky’s writing is quite florid at this point, try to ensure that the triplet figure is evenly played. The second statement of this theme, two bars later, should be even quieter, as if heard from a distance. The final E in the RH of bar 99 should register like a gently chiming bell. The last chords melt away, each quieter than the last. Lift the pedal slowly for a calm and peaceful close.