Tchaikovsy does Mozart

When a schoolboy I was bowled over by the excitement of Tchaikovsky’s stirring 1812 Overture, and I imagine girls of a similar age being entranced by the delicate beauty of Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky is a thoroughly enjoyable composer. But there are some things that should never be attempted.

I’ve been listening to his Suite No. 4 in G, the Mozartiana, in which he orchestrates four pieces by Mozart. For the most part it’s an enjoyable work, but one of the four items, a setting of the motet Ave Verum Corpus, doesn’t work. The immensely powerful, spare original is turned into something lush with plenty of strings and, amazingly, a harp, while the achingly beautiful passage towards the end where the harmony seems on the verge of falling apart, only to be resolved as it is taken to a different level, has disappeared.

Sometimes composers can rework the material of their predecessors in a way that genuinely adds value; think of Respighi’s adaptions of renaissance pieces in his Suite of Ancient Airs and Dances. But in providing a new version of the Ave Verum, Tchaikovsky set his foot on the path that was followed a good way further by Malcolm Sargent in his orchestrations of Bach that seem to me to suck all the strength and goodness out of the original. It’s hard to imagine works which achieve such strength on the basis of such slender resources ever being improved upon. Some things are best left well alone!

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