In the public's imagination, Russian music is strongly associated with Romanticism because its rise to prominence occurred in the 19th century and its greatest practitioners, from Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky to Sergey Rachmaninov, powerfully expressed the brooding emotions popularly ascribed to their nationality and the Romantic era. However, it might surprise some listeners to know that a current of Classicism can also be found in Russian music, particularly in some of the works of Tchaikovsky, for he deeply admired the composers of the 18th century and prized the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart above all others. Perhaps more than in any other of his works, except the four orchestral suites and the Serenade for Strings, Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme reveals a nostalgia for the Classical style, updated in orchestration and technical showiness for the times, but with no obvious concessions to trends of Russian Romanticism, such as exoticism or nationalism. To be sure, Tchaikovsky's tell-tale melodic gifts are abundantly present, and his ardent personality is stamped on this piece, but its restraint and poise, as well as the brilliant virtuosic passages for the solo cello, bespeak a predilection for the forms and practices of another century. The current of Classicism ultimately found an honored place in 20th century music, most notably in the neo-Classical works of Igor Stravinsky, but it strongly informed the music of Sergey Prokofiev, whose Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra is a good example of the marriage of Classical form with pungent modernist content. This is an assertive work, by turns grotesque and lyrical, that presents the cello in a dramatic showcase. But despite the extremely difficult writing for the cello, and the rather aggressive tone of much of the piece, the framework and tonal development are decidedly Classicist in structure, if not necessarily in expression.
This 2008 recording by cellist Gautier Capuçon and the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, conducted by Valery Gergiev, presents the Variations first, obviously because of the lightness and charm of the work makes it an appealing appetizer for the heavier main course, the Sinfonia Concertante. Capuçon is a strong performer, equally matched to Gergiev in force of personality, physical presence, and energy, and the two artists make this a powerhouse of a recording that exudes stamina and vitality from beginning to end. Not to be left out, though, is the Mariinsky Orchestra, which plays with extraordinary precision and passion, and provides an ideal backdrop for the astounding feats by Capuçon. Virgin's recording is clear and vibrant, so the full range of sonorities and dynamics come through with immediacy and credible dimensions.