Tchaikovsky
1812 – Festival Overture, Op.49
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Leon McCawley (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti
To call this concert mainstream would be an understatement and certainly the I812 Overture rarely finds its way into anything other than ‘Popular Classics’ programmes. Here rather than an outsize orchestra, massed bands and sundry ordnance there were 21 additional brass-players and subdued and not very realistic cannon shots heard via loudspeakers. Daniele Gatti’s performance was let down by an off-key oboe after the introduction, too slow a tempo for the Allegro con fuoco and a less than exhilarating conclusion.
This proved a disappointing evening, the soloist, conductor and orchestra not firing on all cylinders and with significant aspects of Tchaikovsky’s music left unexplored. In the First Piano Concerto Leon McCawley favoured moderate tempos for the first movement, and his phrasing and fingerwork were clean and unmannered, but the dynamic range and attack were limited and the performance never conveyed any form of spontaneity. Gatti opted for an even approach to the accompaniment with string dynamics, in particular, smoothed out. This combined with the orchestra’s under-nourished string tone – the double basses being particularly weak – and the woodwinds precarious ensemble made the performance even-more under-characterised.
The second movement started with a rather angular flute solo McCawley wove a delicately crystalline line; however, the central prestissimo was nothing more than accurate and when the orchestra resumed with ‘tempo 1’ the horns were half-a-beat late and the first oboist fluffed his solo. Things livened up in the finale, but because of McCawley’s lack of rhythmic variation, the dance elements were only hinted at and the double octaves leading up to the climax before the coda were fast and clean but hardly cataclysmic. Indeed only in the coda did he seem to finally let go and enjoy himself. Overall, McCawley wanted to avoid excess but he produced a very one-dimensional account and not helped by Gatti’s obstinately earthbound conducting.
After the interval, one of the 19th-century’s greatest symphonies, in a performance that fell some way short of greatness. The introductory bassoon solo was under-projected on a bed of ill-defined string sound and there was no sense of underlying tension, which should find its release in the main allegro. Gatti’s tempo for that allegro was fast and punchy, but unfortunately the climax of the short development section, while powerful, was less than shattering because Gatti had allowed the brass to play too loudly in the build up. Once more the orchestra was let down by weak double basses, which meant that the overall sound was light in tone, which doesn’t suit this symphony. In the Waltz second movement, Allegro con grazia, the tempo was again fast, and when the first theme returned after the central episode, the string pizzicatos lacked weight and attack, the whole smoothed out.
There are many ways of approaching the third movement March – Gatti presented it as a jaunty orchestral showpiece, which brought applause from the audience. Great performances of this movement though have far greater tension and danger and a sense of striving for some ultimately unachievable goal – Gatti failed to project these elements. By some way the best was reserved until last; in the Adagio lamentoso the tempo was flowing but for the first time the strings really sat forward and dug into their instruments and the second subject brought no unmarked accelerando at its climax. If the whole performance had had this degree of intensity it would have left a far more memorable impression.

 

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