Tchaikovsky wrote The Seasons in 1875–76 for the music magazine Nuvellist, which had commissioned a character piece for every month of the year, to be published in successive issues. The composer – than at the height of his powers and position – did not take the job terribly seriously, and reportedly told his assistant to remind him of the task on a given day every month. Although The Seasons has had admirers over the years, the set as a whole has never attained wide popularity. Nonetheless, two movements were immediately recognised as minor masterpieces: the graceful ‘Barcarolle’ (June) and the evocative, jingly ‘In the Troika’ (November). But there are other lovely sections, notably the perfumed ‘White Nights’ and ringing ‘Christmas’. Mily Balakirev’s ‘oriental fantasy’ Islamey is one of the most technically difficult works in the repertoire. Composed in 1869, the piece is believed to have been conceived as a sketch for a longer, orchestral work. In the decades around the turn of the century, it became a favourite with such leading virtuosi as Anton Rubinstein and, later, Josef Hofmann. As a score that demands the fanciest of finger work, as well as an extraordinary range of tone color and some intensity of conviction, Islamey suits Yefim Bronfman’s big-boned virtuosity to a T.
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