Thursday 10 November 2005
The Storm Overture, Op.76
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Manfred Symphony in B minor in four tableaux after the dramatic poem by Byron, Op.58
Sunday 13 November 2005
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 (Winter Daydreams)
Vadim Repin (violin)
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 13 November, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Tchaikovsky has long featured prominently on Michael Tilson Thomas’s schedule, so it was interesting to find him ‘rediscovering’ the composer – and in the company of the London Symphony Orchestra – in two programmes comprising symphonies, concertos and overtures: concerts which neatly juxtaposed ‘evergreens’ with works that, nowadays at least, figure on the periphery of the repertoire.
Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is not a rarity these days, and a symphonic hybrid which can easily sprawl – as, in the outer movements at least, Tilson Thomas’s account tended to do. The introduction was brooding but hardly baleful in its intensity, and gave rise to a first movement which brought out the contrasting personas of Manfred and his sister Astarte without seeking a greater symphonic cohesion in their alternation, and with a coda that had implacability but little real motivating intensity.
A steady but characterful tempo for the scherzo – surely among Tchaikovsky’s most winsome pieces – gave it a decidedly balletic delicacy, and it was not the fault of the composer if the intervention of the Manfred theme was more convincing (because less contrived) here than in the third movement, an agitated ‘pastorale’ which otherwise convincingly linked fresh ideas with those recurring motifs that give the work its unity. Not always inevitability, however, as the finale all too clearly proved. Treating it more as a succession than an accumulation of contrasting moods and reminiscences, Tilson Thomas created little anticipation going into the apotheosis: though the (imported) Barbican organ was equal to the task, the musical effect was conclusive but hardly cathartic. An impressive demonstration of orchestral responsiveness and conducting proficiency, then, but with less in the way of interpretative insight.
Any account of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto must confront a daunting performance tradition and audience expectation. Among the more thoughtful of today’s virtuosos, Vadim Repin responded with playing that, while it hardly presented the piece in a revelatory light, has its share of interpretative felicities. On both its appearances, the opening movement’s second theme was suavely rendered, and if Repin could have made more of the episode between the orchestral statements of the ‘big tune’, his interventionist approach in the cadenza gave it an impetus that underlined just why Tchaikovsky made it a composed interpolation in the first instance. The Canzonetta was simply and unaffectedly rendered, with a deft transition from its central section back to the soulful main theme, while the finale tempered its overt display with a piquancy such as underlined the restraint of Tchaikovsky’s scoring through so much of this concerto – and which Tilson Thomas’s discretion conveyed so tellingly.
One might have expected the First Piano Concerto to have been relatively non-committal, but Vladimir Feltsman’s leonine technique ably articulated what, in the first movement, is one of Tchaikovsky’s most wide-ranging structures – avoiding mere ‘war horse’ associations. Feltsman’s passagework was not always consistent in its evenness, but such approximations as there were did not disguise that this is essentially a sequence of variations on the majestic opening – one that underlies every theme that follows in its wake. The cadenza, fiery but not unyielding, was all of a piece with the overall conception. The Andantino brought elegant orchestral playing, guided by Tilson Thomas with the expertise of one who appreciates this music as much from the keyboard as from the podium, and with the central prestissimo deftly inflected. The finale had wit and humour to leaven its virtuosity – and if the apotheosis was not quite overwhelming, there was no doubting it as the only likely outcome.
Both concerts opened (comparatively rarely these days) with an overture. Romeo and Juliet, finely if a little blandly played, was most effective in those unexpected but imaginative transitions that open out the sonata structure in a way that emphasised the ‘fantasy overture’ billing. Much less familiar is The Storm, a concert overture after the play by Alexander Ostrovsky (the basis for Janáček’s opera “Katya Kabanova”) that Tchaikovsky wrote in the summer of 1864 as a vacation exercise for Anton Rubinstein. The free-wheeling sonata form draws openly on Berlioz’s overtures, and yet the brusque contrasts in mood and content are already Tchaikovsky’s – though not to the extent conveyed by this over-impetuous account, undermining the subtlety with which formal transitions are carried through.
That Tchaikovsky chose not to promote the latter piece comes down to the fact that, three years on, he directly utilised its ‘love theme’ in the slow movement of his First Symphony – a performance of which concluded the second concert. Like his Third Symphony, given a rare outing in London just over two weeks ago, Tchaikovsky’s first work in the medium enjoys a higher profile in recordings than in concerts. Yet for all its overtones of Mendelssohn and Schumann, the 26-year-old St Petersburg Conservatoire graduate’s attempt at establishing a symphonic idiom has real freshness and, for much of its length, conviction. Tilson Thomas maintained a firm grasp in the Allegro tranquillo (strange marking!), with its often agitated flights of fancy, and gave strings and woodwind their head in the evocative ‘snowscape’ of the Andante – the difficult-to-balance textures of its climax tellingly articulated. The scherzo was playful but unhurried, its waltz-time trio proceeding with little change in pulse. Weakest movement though the finale may be, failing to drive home its symphonic potential with full certainty, yet Tilson Thomas persuasively built momentum in the Andante sections, and ensured the bombastic qualities elsewhere were held firmly in check. The coda blazed confidently but not coarsely in consequence.
Whether these concerts quite amounted to Tchaikovsky ‘rediscovered’ is a moot point, but there was no denying the quality of much of the music-making, nor of the perceptible – if relatively detached – enjoyment evinced by Tilson Thomas in his interpretations. He and the LSO might like to try a further such brace of concerts in the next season or two – with the Second or even Third Piano Concerto, and a couple of the Orchestral Suites and less familiar overtures set alongside more standard repertoire.