Vladimir Ashkenazy and Stuart Skelton on Tchaikovsky’s supernatural riddle.

“O Lord!” wrote Modest Tchaikovsky to his composer brother in 1888. “Had you been writing music for this libretto, I would have been scribbling ten times as enthusiastically.” The libretto in question was for an operatic adaptation of Pushkin’s short story Pikovaya Dama( The Queen of Spades), commissioned by Moscow’s Director of Imperial Theatre, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, and which – despite attempts by Modest to interest his brother in the project – was currently in the hands of a lesser composer, one Nikolai Klenovsky. Tchaikovsky’s last opera, The Enchantress,had flopped, and he assured Modest that any attempt by him at a Queen of Spadeswould have mediocre results: the subject simply did not excite him.

That was 1888, however, and by the end of 1889, the composer’s outlook had changed. The collaboration between Klenovsky and Modest Tchaikovsky had evidently petered out, and Tchaikovsky’s own interest in the scenario had intensified. Klenovsky, he wrote to a friend, had “not written a thing”, and thus, spurred by an urge to “flee” from concert engagements, Tchaikovsky had agreed not only to undertake the commission, but to execute it at fairly...