Sergei Abir about his symphonic interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons
Andrei Ustinov: Interview with Sergei Abir in Muzykalnoe obozrenie 1 (408) 2017
(Translated from the Russian in the abridged version with the kind permission of Muzykalnoe obozrenie)
Over the course of about a century and a half, Tchaikovsky’s piano cycle The Seasons (op. 37 bis, 1875-76) has acquired a unique cultural history, not only through the countless editions, recordings, arrangements, and interpretations in other arts, but also through the six or seven generations of listeners, at least five of which have acquired their musical experience from radio and sound recordings. Indeed, there are not many listeners whose musical memory has not retained some tunes from The Seasons. Tchaikovsky’s very familiar pieces could thus well have lost their freshness. This, however, did not happen. Their nostalgic overtones are always vibrant. We know how April sounds: not the piece titled “April”, but nature and our feelings in the month of April; we know how December sounds, smelling of pine cones and anticipating the Christmas excitement. Tchaikovsky’s sonic portraits of the months have acquired the quality of a secular ritual. The new orchestration, by Sergei Abir, enlivens The Seasons with the surprising effect of Tchaikovsky’s presence. We hear the Russian composer’s own soundscape in every episode of this unusual symphonic interpretation, conveying the breath of nature as only Tchaikovsky could do. This is not a pale copy of the piano pieces, but a symphonic work of tremendous power, suggesting that it might have been Tchaikovsky himself who had embodied his artistic ideas of The Seasons within a symphonic score. This surprisingly subtle and unaffected Tchaikovsky-Abir enterprise tells the stories of The Seasons, captivating and engaging the listener, who is then transported to another time and place: the world of the nineteenth century with its visions, landscapes, moods, and allusions, so typical of Russian poetry, literature, and the arts, locating them within a theatrical space — perhaps the Mariinsky Theatre or the Bolshoi stage with its depth and spaciousness. At times the musical movement seems to transcend the theatre’s settings, breaking free into living nature. It is the apparent choreography, the danceability, of Tchaikovsky’s music that makes the theatrical association so obvious. For example, the difference between (as it were) solo variations and (as it were) the corps de ballet is so noticeable that the imagination easily completes the magic of lights and colors of illumination, the familiar mise-en- scènes of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, with their cinematic generosity of sonorous images. It is hard to keep up with the frequent changes in texture and orchestration effects, all sounding both familiar but yet unfamiliar in their new guise. This movement of massed instruments, this unfolding action that leads towards the unknown, is breathtakingly revealing, even for those among us who can hum The Seasons from beginning to end. The orchestral plot in Abir’s score constitutes a carefully planned drama, convincingly constructed and rich in surprises. Permeated with dialogical orchestral lines, the score’s coloring and texture – melodies and countermelodies – resonate Tchaikovsky, Chai-kov- sky. Upon listening to the solo bassoon at the end of “The Lark Song” – no other sound can be imagined to better fit this particular point. When October’s “Autumn Song” ends as a violin and cello duet, no other combination could better stir our emotions. September’s “Hunt” leaves no doubt about the festive excitement of this ancient ritual, with its unrestrained, aggressive drive that could not be better conveyed than by the powerful, piercing calls of the brass instruments. Similar effects might indeed be found in other orchestrations, but the middle section, in which contrapuntal lines pursue, collide, and intersect with each other – just as in Tchaikovsky’s favorite battle scenes – is an innovation that will forever change our perception of this piece. That The Seasons indeed begs for the orchestral medium is not new. Alexander Gauk’s well-known orchestration (1942 — suggesting a possible affinity with Tchaikovsky’s 100 th anniversary), is still being performed and recorded, and many other versions for a chamber orchestra feature in concert programs. Now we have a thrilling new orchestration by Sergei Abir. Even its partial performance made a tremendous impression: “September”, “October”, “November” and “December”, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the inauguration of its jubilee season 2015-16 (175 years of RLPO and 175 years of Tchaikovsky), and recorded by BBC Radio 3. Abir’s inventive score, with its meticulous attention to timbral and harmonic details, is not merely the result of an impulsive whim, but the product of a sophisticated creative intuition by an artist whose professional skill is based on his deep knowledge of the Moscow school of composition and orchestration, essentially dating back to the days in which Tchaikovsky, teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, composed The Seasons and Swan Lake.
Why did Abir decide to devote years to yet another orchestral version? Intrigued, I decided to provide the readers with an insight into this vivid artistic event and asked Sergei Ritsarev-Abir two main questions. The first relates to his thoughts on musical arrangements, orchestrations, and instrumentation as an independent profession. What are its secrets, its social status, and relevance for professional performance and concert audiences? The second question focuses on the very process of working on The Seasons, seeking to determine what constitutes his creative laboratory, approach, and vision that have led to this outstanding artistic result. The attraction of the orchestra Muzykalnoe Obozrenie
Why did you become an arranger?
SA In fact, this is a profession that I did not find, but it found me. I prepared myself to be a conductor. I studied at the Moscow Conservatory, starting in its Central Music School for Gifted Children. But closer to the middle of my studies at the conservatory, my instrumentation tutor, Yury Alexandrovich Fortunatov, took such a great hold on my consciousness, my preferences, and passions, that it somehow happened that I abandoned conducting. I was unfamiliar with the issue of proportions, sometimes ignoring other necessary courses of study, and put all my youthful ardor into scribbling on the scores. I filled them with vast numbers of notes before discovering in myself the first signs of courage, and also arrogance, seeing myself as a co- composer of the arranged work. Pitfalls of the profession
MO Arrangement thus became your main professional occupation. Indeed, arrangers are essentially composers, but somehow they are not very visible to the public, not always named or barely noticeably named. Moreover, arrangements today have almost no place in the classical programs, 99.9% of which consist in original compositions. Arrangements are typically considered far from the mainstream philharmonic repertoire, so to say, as “secondary”. Don’t you suffer from a certain dissonance in relation to the creative efforts that you invest in your arrangements?
SA The concept of “secondary” has indeed stuck to the profession of the arranger, but it is hardly fair. It suffices to cite as an example Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestration or orchestral versions of Bach’s works by A. Webern, O. Respighi, and P. Rivilis, in order to understand the true depth of this misperception. It is not the profession that is secondary (second-rate) but, rather, sometimes the specific fruits of its representatives, most often relating to pop culture. On the other hand, barely 10-12% of all original compositional productions can be ranked as truly original, that is, as artistically valuable, to the extent that such works will be remembered and selected for repeated performance and listening. Furthermore, the translations of literary classics and poetry by the great masters like Marchak, Pasternak, or Nabokov, to mention just a few Russians, can hardly be called secondary production. Translation/arrangement is a very special labor and art. I fully subscribe to Eghishe Charent’s contention that “poetry must be translated by a poet”. I associate the arrangement of music with the translation of literature and, even more so, with poetry. In translating his novels, Vladimir Nabokov effectively created new works, since the language of the translation necessitated finding an unambiguous artistic embodiment, comprehension, and deep sense of the nature of the original language – as a new medium, new grounds, new mental circle: in a word – an entire new world. What an arranger searches for in music is not to create a copy of a style, but to seek the spirit of the musical content. While retaining complete fidelity to the basic components of the musical texture, which the arranger reads in the original, he nevertheless seeks the means to transform, to convert these components into a new environment, similar to the new linguistic environment in the work of a literary translator. It is this that allows not only the musical content of the original to be preserved, but also brings the natural resources to life and creates the conditions that enable them to function in the “new” world, which is akin to the best poetic translations. Without such an approach, the arrangement would be similar to a literary word-for- word (verbum pro verbo) translation. But who needs it?
MO Is everyone able to distinguish one from the other?
SA I think it is appropriate to evaluate the arranger’s standing and his output according to the impression his work creates on the listener. I do not mean an abstract repertoire, but that of the arrangement in comparison with the original. My criterion reflects a potential question from the audience: “Why did you undertake this work?” If the new version is convincing, and they want to hear it again, no one will ask “Why did you do it?” The main thing for me is that they will not need to ask “Why did you do this?”
MO In other words, for you the ideal is when the question does not arise.
SA Yes. There is only one criterion: whether my orchestration moves the listener through its artistic value, like an original, or not. If it does, the work was worth accomplishing.
MO How did you develop your skills and artistry?
SA It was a long path, of course. Once, the arrangement of a popular repertoire for brass bands was both a school and a field of creativity for me. I remember with gratitude my work with brass bands and with the Military Conducting Faculty of Moscow Conservatory, at which I taught for many years. The work significantly differed from the praxis of symphonic orchestration. It expanded my store of devices, taught me to hear the orchestra better, and see the horizon of its possibilities. I arranged a lot of classical music for brass bands. I was very serious about commissions and constantly sought a result that would be acoustically and emotionally if not equal, which is impossible by definition, then at least akin to the original. The need to overcome the absence of a bright and dramatic contrast between the strings and the wind instruments was very stimulating. I had to look for, and most importantly find, solutions that reflected the musical-acoustical and emotional nature of the symphonic original. In the execution of this “somewhat strange task”, the search took me so far that I “forgot” the original sound in the pursuit of my aim that the particular ensemble with which I worked, the wind instruments, would sound naturally. Again, I was possessed by a kind of fear of being asked by the audience: Why did you do it? Why so? In seeking as hard as possible to avoid such a question arising, I tried, if I may say so, to establish a “dialogue” with the composer of the original. It was as if I had placed his photo on my desk and, looking into his eyes, I checked his reaction. If he winked and said “come on, come on!”, then my impulse was right. But in order to create a musical work of value, it is not a detailed visual portrait of the composer that is important but, rather, a kind of X-ray. I refer to a hidden emotion, which can be revealed by subtle means. If we employ this approach, a work written originally for a symphony orchestra will resonate organically when played by a brass band.
MO What do you teach your students?
SA The main requirement is an unhurried study of the original. Along with gaining experience in mastering new material, the student can discover the ability to simultaneously perform actions on two levels: intuitive and controllable. This initial stage of communication with the original is the most important in the entire process of transforming the old material into a new one. It is in this initial period of the search for solutions that we find (or do not find) the place where the beckoning light dwells. The aim is to retain this genuine source of light at all costs and to invest all your efforts into building a new home for this very source of light. At the same time, we must not forget that the merit of the result depends entirely on our ability to remain faithful to its former home, to the infinite fire that dwells therein. Only then, and in this case, is it possible to convey to the listener the emotional impression that you have acquired from the original without losing any of the emotion. It perhaps sounds too metaphorical, but it works.
MO How do you achieve this?
SA How to do it technically is a matter of professional skills that need to be learned. However, it is not the musical notes and their combinations that form the basis of the technique, but the sound and its expression. These are capable of engaging the listener into entering with you into the composer’s sound-world. The arranger is obliged to find a way to entice the listener not with technique and skill, but with the quality of material that can approach the composer’s style, his musical language. The most important thing is that his score be recognizable as belonging to the composer and that to the listener it will merely seem to be one of the composer’s previously unknown works. In other words, I see the main talent of the arranger as lying in his ability to completely set aside his ego in order to enter into the style of the composer. In this case, to become if not his hand, then at least his shadow.
MO But what about the creative ego of the arranger? Does is exist?
SA Undoubtedly. While both composer and arranger can write music par excellence, the arranger is like a musician-performer, interpreter. In a sense, he is a servant, an intermediary between the composer and the listener. At the same time, the highest aim of any performer is to provide his own interpretation of the musical composition. Such is the purpose of an arranger too, only his instrument is an orchestra and he creates his own interpretation by orchestral means. As you know, there are musicians who are thirsty for novelty and brightness of performance, and prefer to present themselves rather than the composer. Others choose a different priority: to present the composer and his concept. It is similarly so with arrangers and their creative egos. In both cases a transformation of the source material is required.
MO What kind of transformation?
SA Transformation, both in its generic meaning and on the scale of structural and textural changes, that the co-composer creates according to his understanding and practical need. Such cases are usually separated by a long time period, indeed an entire epoch or two. For example, Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah, Mahler’s – of Beethoven’s The Ninth, or Schumann’s arrangement of Bach’s Johannes Passion, are nothing more than an historical reinterpretation, a dialogue between composers from different eras. This is a purely compositional approach, a composer’s arrangement. The co-composer does not hide behind the original name, and his own name is prominently displayed, even if he wrote some arrangement in his early student years. The listener can choose which he prefers: whether the arrangement of Schubert’s songs in which he learns much more about Hans Zender than about Schubert (Schubert’s Winterreise – eine komponierte Interpretation); or, conversely, when the name of the arranger does not mean anything to him, but he gets “the new work by Schubert”, which pleases him with its new impressions. This only underlines what we already know: the connection between arrangement and composition is indistinct.
MO Well, these are examples from the work of famous composers. What about when a musician promotes himself, with the composition itself occupying a lesser place in his activities, and his reputation being more developed in the field of arrangement?
SA Returning to my own version of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, I must agree: its path to the listener was not easy, since this work was initially not commissioned by anyone. In creating it, however, I did not need a customer. The moment had simply arrived, and my reflections were replaced with actions. At first, I worked with uncertainty, unsure of myself, but gradually freedom (not ease!) came. I had no deadlines, the work spanned about 25 years in all, with intermittent breaks lasting years, but this brainchild was always with me, and we kept each other warm. The Seasons
MO Your project was a kind of dialogue or creative competition with Alexander Gauk, whose orchestration is well-known and performed.
SA I first heard Gauk’s orchestration in the early 1960s, when the Soviet Central TV broadcast The Seasons, conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov and with his substantial preface. To the credit of Gauk, even today it constitutes the worthiest of attention and a convincing orchestration. There may even be a recording with Gauk himself, but I am not aware of one. In addition to Svetlanov, there are also recordings by N. Jarvi, and K. Orbelian. Gauk’s version is clearly conceptual. It is close to the original both in the basic elements of the piano presentation, and in its smallest details. Some of them, however, are purely pianistic and absolutely unsuitable for the orchestra. Like many others, I was drawn to take up the orchestration of The Seasons by a well-recognized property: that it begs to be taken out of the piano solo framework and be released to orchestral interpretation. Many of its melodic gestures and textural models have their counterparts in Tchaikovsky’s instrumental solos: in his ballets, operas, and symphonies. They are read and reproduced by arrangers almost equally or similarly. The idea had been there in the background for me for many years. When I finally decided to start working, I already knew that I had to go some other way than the principle of “as close to the original text as possible”. My mentor, Yu. A. Fortunatov (to whom I dedicated this work), preached and implemented a certain system. After many years of communication with him, I realized what it was that was preventing me from the most common praxis of transcribing non-orchestral works for the orchestra: attachment to the original; excessive, unquestioning fidelity to its details in spite of the nature of the orchestra – the environment in which the musical ideas have to live their new life. The peculiarity of my orchestral version of The Seasons lies in a method of considering the piano original as a kind of composer’s sketch or a scheme of the future orchestral work. Or maybe as a piano reduction of the score that exists in the composer’s imagination. This approach allows one to accept the conditions of a new, multi-functional performing body. By means of other instruments, it liberates one from directly copying the original text and helps one to think orchestrally according to the models of the composer himself. It is as though one overcomes the gravitation of the piano and enters the sound space in another dimension, with its own acoustic laws. The potential of the work then reciprocates, revealing its capabilities anew, and helps hidden textural lines to breathe.
MO Probably, for such a creative act, one has to free oneself from some burden of respect towards the great composer, to give vent to one’s own creative imagination, or just to identify oneself with the composer?
SA In this case, in addition to the mandatory possession of the entire orchestral apparatus, one has to experience a strong irrational impulse and the ability constantly to hear sequences typical for the composer: chordal, timbral, and others, as if they are flying in the air. You enter a new environment and feel that you can communicate there, in its language. And then it begins a dialogue with you, a dialogue of a special type, for which the basis is your memory and intuitive contact with these instruments as if awaiting you in the composer’s workshop. You, like a ghost, enter his studio and work with his tools. You are a ghostwriter in the literal sense of the word. The difference is that you allow yourself not to remain anonymous. The level of contact with the sound-world of the composer is what is responsible for the musicality and fidelity of the result.
MO The way you tell it, this is neither a composition, nor an arrangement, nor an orchestration. It is something else, belonging principally to another kind of work with the source material. How do you define this kind of creativity?
SA It is difficult to offer an exact and unambiguous definition. I am inclined to qualify it rather as interpretation, in this case a symphonic interpretation, if such a genre of composition indeed exists.
MO Allow me to drop in at your unusual laboratory. Tell us a little more specifically about the principles of your work.
SA I preach two principles of work, and not only in relation to this cycle. The first: to discover the logic of exposition and development of the original. The second: to complete the lacking details of a musical texture in order to produce a full-scale implementation of an orchestral version. I perceive a logic in Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces as expressed in any of three ways. a) as a ready-made model: a bud of a flower. I mean that the piano original contains a certain module ready for disclosure; b) when the nature of the material is rare for Tchaikovsky. You start looking for analogs in the composer’s scores and you either find them or not; and c) when the model is like an unfinished puzzle, and you guess and complete it. It has not been exploited by the composer in this particular form, but it does follow organically from his methods. And you roam, figuratively speaking, amidst Tchaikovsky’s lexemes, phonemes, and morphemes, until either you tame them, or they tame you, and the composer himself begins to sound. In some cases, I felt that one introductory measure was required (“March” and “August”) in order to facilitate approaching the character of the movement. In another case, a short introduction was added (“December”), based on the motives of the middle section. There are also pieces where I felt necessary to add a conclusion, not just for the sake of doing so, but as a result of the high density of musical events. The inertia of movement, as defined by a large composition, needs more time to stop, it has a different “stopping distance”. In an orchestral writing Tchaikovsky would not have taken the same path as in the endings of the piano pieces. Behind the interpreter’s back
MO Well, specifically. We’ll start straight from January.
SA I did not plan January as the flagship work of the entire project. But it turned out to be so. The material of the piano original is very rich and diverse, merely hinting at the potential of a different scale. Such hints are precious, because they hide some key, a password that opens the door to a new, sought-after scale of musical events. To put it in computer terms, it was necessary to “unzip” material that contained a high density of information. Before entering into this, I needed to define a new register frame for all the textural elements. I will talk here only about the melody, because in order to discuss all the other elements even ten interviews would not be enough. In this piece by Tchaikovsky, the melody is stated constantly in the soprano register – from the beginning to the end. To animate its slumbering expression, it was necessary to let the melody move freely in a vertical direction: an octave higher, an octave lower, for the benefit of the melody itself and the immense musical value of its text, and with great efficacy for the structure of the orchestral piece. Following such permutations, music not only does not lose, but, on the contrary, it gains certain new properties. It was my hope that by such treatment of the original the composer would recognize himself in this new version. Realizing this hope was really worth all the effort invested. You know, “What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for a bull”. I felt like the mythological bull in the timid hope that Jove would not reject me if I do what I think he would do now; or as if I were looking at the text of the score lying on the table and half-covered by the figure of Pyotr Ilyich, and trying to guess what the Master would change in the piano version, in order not to compromise the idea of the work in its new interpretation.
MO And something else, for example, “June”, Barcarolle. The piano original seems simple. But it cannot remain the same in orchestration. How can one avoid boredom and failure? How to fill it with natural symphonic material, without changing Tchaikovsky?
SA “June” is, of course, a hard nut to crack, one of the most difficult pieces for orchestration. I seem to be lucky to have found the key “outside of the box” – thanks to a seemingly strange circumstance. There is a very commonplace episode: the climax before the reprise ends with an unusually short recitative in the low register and the chord. There are many technically simple solutions to the instrumentation of this episode. Planning the orchestration, I chose one of the simplest and ended this episode with a chord of winds. However, I heard something surprisingly cold and somewhat indifferent to Tchaikovsky’s material before and after this episode. It made me think a lot. In search of another, more logical orchestration plan, and yet trying to resuscitate this chord, I started moving in reverse. As I returned to the beginning of the piece I felt that I was approaching a logical solution to the problem of that strange chord. My impression was that Tchaikovsky had implied a certain plot in this piece. As you know, the piece is called Barcarolle, while it could also well have been called “The Gondolier’s Song” by analogy with other “songs” of this cycle: a lark, a mower, an autumn song. If we assume that the melodic voice implied a soloist, then a violin would hardly be suitable: our protagonist is most certainly a man, and Tchaikovsky could have chosen a cello. But then you need to put the melody an octave below, otherwise the cello voice would sound like the voice of a male soprano. And then we will have to choose: either to trust the composer’s register, which means a violin, or to take a chance and use a cello. By choosing the first, we will be following the composer’s direct instructions; by choosing the second – we enter the shaky ground of our own decisions, supported by the intuition of the musician and numerous examples from Tchaikovsky’s works. The cello requires an extremely modest accompaniment: for example, only that of the harp, the text of which is in fact already carefully written out in Tchaikovsky’s piano original; or it could also be a guitar or mandolin. But now, after the first musical statement, the level of dynamics increases noticeably, and then a full chorus of cellos enters, joined by the unison of violas (“the group of gondoliers”). Then “the cellist-singer” returns – a lonely and broken gondolier, completing his dramatic narrative, and his drama comes to its logical end – a rapidly culminating episode. It ends with a kind of cliff-edge that opens a very short cadence for the final revelation, the “last word” of our protagonist. This is the moment that makes that chord, from which my doubts began, logical in the orchestration. The chord has only four tones, but how much power and meaning it bears! What a depth of drama lies within it! It is now that one can perceive the logic of the whole piece too as orchestral. The cellist I invented is our imagined gondolier, the protagonist of an invisible plot. The fate of the hero determined the entire orchestration plan. It is based on the personification of the instrument – the bearer of a romantic worldview, such as Harold in Italy by Berlioz or Don Quixote by R. Strauss.
MO How would you like your version to be performed?
SA Considering the fact that The Seasons are actually “The Twelve Months”, and in fact the unit is a month, not a season, the pieces group well into small suites. This understanding and praxis came from the first performers of the work: Vasily Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Ivan Monighetti with the Symphony Orchestra of the Lodz Philharmonic and the orchestra of Krakow Music Academy. I am very grateful to them both for their openness to my interpretation. There is also another option. Stephen Gunzenhauser with The Symphony Orchestra of Lancaster (Pennsylvania) chose one piece “September” as an overture to open the season. One could perhaps choose to play “December” at a New Year ball; or to perform each month individually, as appropriate for an encore. Everything is flexible. I hope that the praxis of performance will be diverse. This Tchaikovsky cycle is marked by the scenic character typical to him. I could not ignore this in the process of my orchestration. I even arrived at two versions of “September”. One begins from FF, like the original, which is suitable for an overture-like performance; while the other starts from afar, like an approaching party of hunters. “September” might also appear more suitable for performance within the entire cycle, through its contrast with the loud and energetic end of “August”. Scenes replace one another. Their alternation becomes so stimulating that the imagination takes hold, leading the listeners to visualize certain episodes familiar to us from Tchaikovsky’s ballets. Indeed, one could rightfully call this cycle the fifth orchestral suite or suite from an unwritten ballet. This is what I imagined both before and after completing this work.