It’s Tchaikovsky’s music all the way with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin for the next few weeks, six of the Symphonies (if not the marvellous Manfred, unnumbered but effectively Symphony 4½), the three Piano Concertos, and sundry other pieces, maybe a few surprises.
It was good to hear the Coronation March (1883), written to help crown Alexander III, one of those terrific short pieces that have sadly all-but-fallen by the wayside in concerts. It was given a festive and swaggering outing, with the trio section noble and decorously detailed, a burst of Tsarist pomp (think 1812 and Marche Slave) returning the piece to its main material and ending with a sonorous final chord.
This exhilarating opener was followed by the Second Piano Concerto, which also suffers neglect and the indignity of having been emendated and cut by Alexander Siloti. Unfortunately, this was the version performed, the slow middle movement suffering the most, reduced to half its original length and with the omission of the opening – and surprising – violin and cello solos that Siloti keeps in the rear-view mirror until later. Best these days to be faithful to Tchaikovsky’s grand design and leave the Siloti version alone, although some pianists still favour it, Trpčeski for example. To be fair, Siloti’s re-write was for many years the standard and I got to know it this way through Gary Graffman’s fabulous CBS recording (Ormandy conducting) and I treasure a live rendition from Emil Gilels with Svetlanov. (Gilels also recorded it with the late Lorin Maazel.)
Majesty, impetuosity and tenderness informed the first movement, Olga Kern full-blooded in attack for the showiest passages, the piano sound – as received over the Internet – lacking both body and colour, although the big cadenza, if a little pulverised, was certainly exciting. The slow movement, for all Siloti’s truncation, was affectingly done, with fine contributions from Yoonshin Song (violin) and Wei Yu. It would have been nice to have gone straight into the ebullient finale, but the cellist needed to return to base. This last movement was taken on the nifty side – Gilels’s greater measure pays many dividends – but it was in-keeping with the bright and breezy approach afforded the music, all over in 35 minutes, some 10 to 15 shorter than your average account of what Tchaikovsky intended.
The concert was highlighted with a superb ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, a Slatkin speciality. He waited a while for some in the audience to settle, and then double basses and bassoon (Robert Williams) made a dark and lamenting introduction. This was searching and carefully considered conducting, attentive to balance and niceties, structurally scrupulous, but fully inside the spirit of the music, its intense nostalgia, dramatic tempestuousness and overwhelming – baleful – emotionalism.
In the 5/4 second movement, sometimes described as a “lopsided” waltz, Slatkin didn’t take the easy option, finding shadows lurking in the rhythms and melodies and then expressed an even heavier burden in the middle section. Rather special, in fact. So too the following March, certainly lively but also with a keen ear for clarity, the music built to a resounding if joyous and unforced coda, cueing – forgive me, I am about to use the c-word – clapping ... but let’s not go there.
Time for Slatkin to mop his brow, dispense with his baton, and then dig deep into the slow finale, spacious and inward, deeply affecting, a spiralling downward then railing traversal, silence as important as sound, the composer clinging on, until a doom-laden gong-stroke signals that the end is nigh and there is no going back, the music halting and fading to oblivion... For close on 15 minutes Slatkin and the DSO held me enthralled and moved ... but applause arrived rudely early, breaking the spell, Slatkin still immersed in the bare stillness. Damn!