Rescuing Tchaikovsky – Michael Tilson Thomas

Written by: Colin Anderson

Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) is keen to share a side of Tchaikovsky’s music that is sometimes not appreciated…

It’s very easy to take things for granted: the music of Tchaikovsky, for example. But that’s not the way of Michael Tilson Thomas. He’s about to conduct three Tchaikovsky concerts with the LSO, which will include some unjustly neglected masterpieces. MTT will be focussing on the music’s “elegant and lyrical” aspects. “That’s what I love about Tchaikovsky’s music: its Italianate sensibility. It’s a similar challenge to doing Verdi, which can seem great and profound or the silliest music; depending with what integrity it’s done, one can be completely inspired or utterly embarrassed. In those Tchaikovsky Spectacular events we see advertised, they bash through the music in programmes that are thrown together and barely rehearsed. This is not what we’re doing. I have prepared new editions of these works, working on issues of phrasing and balance in the most chamber-music sort of way.”

There are three Barbican dates. On the 9th there is a Discovery concert in which MTT talks about Tchaikovsky and plays musical examples. The following night includes the great Manfred Symphony, after Byron. MTT develops his thoughts. “There are so many quiet moments in works like this, and it’s really about allowing them to be beauteous and believable so that there is a shape.” Without underplaying the passion? “Of course, Manfred is meant to overwhelm, to the point of sensory overload! It’s a Romantic conception: Manfred, a philosopher, tormented by agonies without name!” Sadly, some conductors disfigure Manfred with cuts and other changes. “There is a wonderful English term for all this: something like bollocks! That’s the musicological term!” May I quote you? “Yes, of course.”

On the 13th, Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, Winter Dreams, is included. “I first conducted it when I was 26, the same age the composer was when he wrote it. It’s a miracle piece in a beautifully balanced, floating, pastoral-lyrical place between folkloric and classical. He completely found himself in this work and everything we’re going to love in his later music; and he wouldn’t write such an unerring work until the Fourth Symphony.” MTT’s Boston recording of No. 1 is on DG.

During these concerts MTT will be going to a “much less visited realm, but these are pieces I have done my whole life, and focus on Tchaikovsky’s sophisticated and rather avant-garde conception of sound. He often spoke of ‘play of sounds’, and there is this incredible mixing of contrasts, which later had an influence on Debussy and others. In the First Symphony there’s a quite amazing passage in which horns play as if from the distance; it’s remarkably atmospheric and dissonant, almost futuristic, and you can hear why Sibelius was so indebted to Tchaikovsky.”

I pursue Tchaikovsky’s Italian connection and matters of orchestral balance. “He was aware of the bel canto tradition, and he was in Italy from time to time and enjoyed being there; it’s the Italianate sense that came from Berlioz and other composers he admired, like Schumann. For all Russian composers, not least Rachmaninov and early Stravinsky, the dynamics for brass players relate to a concept of playing that was nowhere near as powerful as what we have today. This issue of balance, delicacy and transparency is a crucial one with Tchaikovsky. It’s also a happy occurrence that Vadim Repin and Vladimir Feltsman share an aristocratic view of this music.” They play, respectively, the Violin Concerto (10th) and Piano Concerto No. 1 (13th), two of the most popular concertos.

You seem to be rescuing Tchaikovsky? “Yes, that’s the point. I love and respect his music so much. Every few years I feel obliged to reacquaint people with his genius and great sincerity of expression. Jung said about the entry to the unconscious taking place through any portal. There’s this possibility for performers to make Tchaikovsky’s music come alive in a particular way. This is why I love working with the LSO. I don’t think of these performances as being mine, I think of them as the orchestra’s which I have the good fortune to be shaping, as a director would in a theatre.”

  • Concerts on 9, 10 & 13 November at the Barbican
  • LSO
  • Barbican
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 2 November 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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