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The Work of Seasoned Performers

Suddenly, the CD bins are a cornucopia of recordings that contemplate Earth's cycles.

*** GOLDSTEIN: "The Seasons: Vermont" Malcolm Goldstein, violin, and instrumental ensemble XI

** GLAZUNOV: "The Seasons" French National Symphony Orchestra, Roger Desormiere, conductor EMI Classics

* 1/2 TCHAIKOVSKY: "The Seasons" Naum Starkman, piano Pope Music

*** 1/2 TCHAIKOVSKY: "The Seasons" Yefim Bronfman, piano Sony

*** 1/2 CAGE: "The Seasons" Stephen Drury, piano Mode

November 22, 1998|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

At a press conference two weeks ago held on the Hollywood Bowl stage, the mid-November sun shone blindingly bright and warm as a summer's day. But many in attendance sweltered in wool, heavy corduroy or turtlenecks. The thermometer said one thing. But the air the light and an innate susceptibility to the calendar all told us something different.

Our sense of the seasons lies at the root of our consciousness. In fact, the urge to mark passing time, science writer David Ewing Duncan persuasively argues in a new book, "The Calendar," "may be our most distinctive trait as a species, since undoubtedly one of the first things we became self-aware about was our own mortality--the fact that we live and die in a set period of time." And what led some Stone Age denizen 13,000 years ago to start scoring days on an eagle's bone was surely his observation of the progression of the seasons, and his sense that survival might hinge on his ability to predict their onset.

The year's cycle has been of great significance to religion and art ever since, and music is no exception. The seasons have provided composers throughout the ages with poetic content for their music and a handy formal ordering device. Medieval mastersingers sang of summer coming. Schumann and Benjamin Britten wrote "Spring" symphonies; Tchaikovsky a "Winter Dreams" symphony. Stravinsky ushered in 20th century music with "The Rite of Spring." Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" seems to have a permanent home at or near the peak of the classical Top 40.

Yet, as common a theme as the seasons is--a Chinese poem from Confucius' time notes that only the stone on the hilltop knows nothing of the four seasons--there are actually very few pieces about the seasons that have made much impact other than the Vivaldi, and the attention to spring by Schumann, Stravinsky and Britten. Even Haydn's great oratorio "The Seasons" is less known than his "Creation."

Nor do composers agree about the meaning or importance of the seasons. Winter, for one, might be a time of death; for another, a celebration of Christ's birth and a new year; for a third, a happy sleigh ride. For some composers, the seasons illustrate the course of man's life; for others they provide a profound sense of dramatic order; for still others, they merely supply nature scenes: say, the busy bees of spring or the thunderstorms of summer.

For instance, on several new CDs relating to the seasons, about all the music has in common is its title and its obscurity. Two of the discs are recordings of a Tchaikovsky 40-minute piano cycle, the longest piano piece by one of the world's favorite composers, written in 1876, the year he wrote "Swan Lake," and yet little-known. The other recordings are of a 1900 Glazunov ballet; a John Cage ballet; and an environmental work by avant-garde violinist Malcolm Goldstein.

Though championed by such notable Russian pianists as Sviatoslav Richter and Mikhail Pletnev--and recorded by many less well-known ones--Tchaikovsky's set of 12 pieces has been overlooked for a seemingly very good reason. The composer himself didn't take the project very seriously. Offered a handsome fee by a St. Petersburg monthly for a year's worth of salon pieces, Tchaikovsky, an indifferent pianist, seems to have looked around him on the fixed day each month that he had his servant remind him about the deadline, and he dashed off something. January is charming music by the fire. May's music is repetitious, never seeming to get anywhere--St. Petersburg's white nights were approaching. December reproduces the fanciful Christmas spirit of "The Nutcracker."

Yet slight as these pieces are, they have a special spontaneity that is rare in Tchaikovsky. The composer did not take the time to brood. Consequently, the months are almost like journal entries, capturing the people, moods, smells and colors around him. All they need is a performance--light, fluid and unfussy--like the one Yefim Bronfman supplies on his latest Sony disc, recorded in very pleasing sound.

The other recording is by controversial Russian pianist Naum Starkman, who overreaches, seeking grand statements in casual music. This recording, on the Pope Music label, underscores the excess with a disc plated with a layer of 24-karat gold and recorded to audiophile standards. The result is overkill.

I'm not at all sure what Glazunov was hoping to accomplish with his "Seasons," written for Petipa, the choreographer of Tchaikovsky's ballets. It opens with winter, its frost and gnomes, and runs through summer's waltzing cornflowers to an autumn bacchanal. That bacchanal has found its way onto pops collections. But the rest of the ballet is warmed-over Tchaikovsky that best serves to demonstrate the revolutionary power of Stravinsky's "Rite" 13 years later.

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