With the weather taking a sharp turn for the colder in the UK today, thoughts turn to wintry music. An underrated gem in this area is the first symphony of Tchaikovsky, which the composer subtitled Winter Daydreams.
This is a tuneful and highly appealing work from 1866, showing the influence of Mendelssohn but also revealing Tchaikovsky’s own individual grasp of symphonic form, and his aptitude for writing programme music.
The full subtitle of the first movement is Dreams of a Winter Journey, while the second movement, Land of Desolation, Land of Mists, is the emotional heart of the symphony with a yearning slow theme. The cool, slight melancholy of the untitled third movement Scherzo is swept away by a jubilant Finale, bringing Tchaikovsky’s first symphonic structure to a satisfying end.
There was much more to come, of course! You can enjoy the symphony in a performance from the Berlin Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan below:
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op.23 (1874-5) Bruckner Symphony no.6 in A major (1879-81)
Gabriela Montero (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 11 May 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Tchaikovsky and Bruckner might not be the likeliest coupling, but this evening’s programme by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra juxtaposed two works of less than a decade apart to arresting and even thought-provoking effect under the baton of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
Gabriela Montero can almost always be relied upon to ring the changes in standard repertoire, as it proved in this account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Its introduction opulent if not unduly grandiloquent, the opening movement proceeded securely and often imaginatively – Montero unafraid to tackle the orchestra head on in this most elemental confrontation, even while her tone was not free of clatter on occasion. Powerfully shaped and incisively rendered, the cadenza brought forth a spontaneous response to this composer at his most imaginative.
At less than half the length of their predecessor, the remaining movements can feel almost an afterthought, though Montero had the measure of the Andantino with its winsome main theme (elegantly phrased by flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic) with its capricious central section incisively fleet of foot. Heading straight into the final Allegro con fuoco (mention of which was omitted from the programme), she duly balanced pianistic fireworks with tangible pathos on the way to an apotheosis with piano and orchestra at one in conveying the music’s unchecked elation.
From the outset of her career, Montero has advocated the almost lost art (with pianists if not organists) of improvisation, and her encore duly took the title-theme from Ennio Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso as basis for an engaging workout along the lines of a Bach fugue.
It was Bruckner’s Sixth that MG-T should have conducted (replaced by Omer Meir-Wellber) at what proved the CBSO’s last ‘home’ concert prior to the corona virus ushering in the first lockdown. Good she has been able to reschedule it, even if the overall result was inconsistent. The initial Majestoso was mostly well judged, even if her modification of tempo between its first and second themes then her hairpin crescendos towards the apexes of the development and coda – the latter being one of Bruckner’s finest inspirations – impeded formal continuity. No such issues affected the Adagio, its ineffable expanse guided with assurance and no little insight towards those climaxes supporting the structure as though pillars of an ecclesiastical edifice – the coda ensuring a benediction whose repose remained after this music had ceased.
Nor was there anything to take issue in a Scherzo whose outer sections had all the requisite verve and wit, with the insouciance of its trio ideally judged. A pity when things rather fell apart in the Finale – its genial second theme just avoiding sentimentality at this halting pace, but whose development unfolded at so inhibited a tempo as to become parenthetical to the movement overall. By the time the coda emerged, any consistency of pulse had long been sacrificed so not even the splendour of the CBSO’s collective response could save the day.
Hopefully MG-T will be able to tackle this recalcitrant work again soon, though tomorrow sees the Tchaikovsky paired with Brahms’s Third Symphony. The CBSO then embarks on another European tour before returning for a History of Soul event at the end of this month.
For more information on the CBSO’s 2021/22 season, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season clickhere. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Gabriela Montero and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Act 2 – Scène, Op. 20 No. 10 (1875-6) Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 126 (1966) Weinberg Symphony No. 3 in B minor, Op. 45 (1949-50, rev. 1959)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Charlotte Politi (below)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 16 March 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra should have been a Weinberg double-bill but the last-minute indisposition of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (having tested positive for Covid) brought to the podium one of the orchestra’s assistant conductors, Charlotte Politi.
Something in the programme had to give and that was only the second hearing in the UK for Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony, an incisively neo-classical piece long familiar to enthusiasts through the Melodiya recording issued in the 1970s and which, while it lacks the gravitas of later symphonies, is never less than engaging in its own right. Instead, the programme began with the ‘Scène’ from Act Two of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (itself the opening number of the suite) – its fraught pathos enticingly realized, if making for an all-too brief curtain-raiser.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason was still present for Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, among the first products of his final creative period and one of his most equivocal works in any medium. Most accounts over-stress its introspection, but Kanneh-Mason gauged the varied expressive shades of its Adagio with unforced rightness; its wrenching climax finding acute contrast with the sombre rumination from which it emerges and to which it returns. The ensuing Allegrettos could not be more dissimilar – a tensile and sardonic scherzo culminating in raucous fanfares as set into motion the finale. If coordination of soloist and orchestra in the former was a little tentative, Kanneh-Mason adroitly negotiated the latter’s gnomic dialogue – afforded focus by an easeful refrain and with a culmination of defiant exasperation, then a coda of furtive repose.
With its unshowy virtuosity and its concertante-like solo writing, this is a hard piece to bring off, but Kanneh-Mason rendered it with some conviction. He returned for an eloquent encore of what sounded to be a (Ukrainian?) folksong with the front four desks of the CBSO cellos.
After the interval, another chance to hear the Third Symphony by Weinberg this orchestra has rather made its own in recent seasons. Ostensibly a response to the anti-formalist campaign as spearheaded by Andrei Zhdanov, with the intention of making Soviet art more accountable to the public, its citing Belorussian and Polish folksongs is offset by the opening Allegro’s often ambivalent progress to a coda shot through with foreboding. Politi was often persuasive here, then not at all fazed by the Allegretto’s interplay of whimsical with a more sardonic humour.
Even better was to come in the Adagio’s finely sustained progress towards a climax of stark tragedy, only slightly mediated by the pensive close. An energetic final Allegro duly set out to secure an affirmative end, only to culminate in marked desperation, and it was a measure of Politi’s insight that the coda maintained its uncertainty even as those decisive closing bars echoed to silence. The CBSO responded impressively throughout a piece it must know better than any other orchestra, and it was to Politi’s credit that her own input was so often evident.
Hopefully MG-T will recover in time for the CBSO’s forthcoming European tour, such that Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony will gain the hearings it deserves. And if next season she can schedule the Fifth, arguably his finest purely orchestral symphony, then so much the better.
For more information on the CBSO’s spring tour, visit their website. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Charlotte Politi and Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Meanwhile for more on composer Mieczysław Weinberg, click here
Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1880) Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D (1931) Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36 (1877-8)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 2 March 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Coming toward the end of her tenure as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla presided over this orthodox programme of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky given additional resonance by the geopolitical context against which it was heard.
At its centre was the Violin Concerto which Stravinsky wrote for his then duo partner Samuel Dushkin, whose four succinct movements nominally correspond to what is frequently thought a typical work from his neo-classical years, but with Patricia Kopatchinskaja involved this was anything but a straightforward rendering. From the start, a theatrical burlesque undercut any notions of Classical or even Baroque poise – those acerbic contrasts of its opening Toccata complemented by the speculative ambivalence of its First Aria or plangent eloquence of its Second Aria; the final Capriccio no less provocative in its constantly changing harmonic and rhythmic emphases. Regretting the absence of a cadenza, Kopatchinskaja instead gave Ligeti’s early Ballad and Dance – the latter in partnership with leader Eugene Tzikindelean.
Ambivalence in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is more to do with what sort of piece it is – the composer taking over a decade to get the formal balance of this ‘fantasy overture’ right. While there was no lack of evocative immediacy, MG-T was more concerned with bringing out its symphonic logic; not least in a sombre introduction and notably circumspect take on the ‘love theme’. For all the ensuing cumulative impetus, it was the woodwind chorale near the end – Tchaikovsky’s empathy with his subjects made explicit – as proved most affecting.
It was with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony that MG-T concluded her first concert in charge of the CBSO at the 2016 Proms, which memory recalls as similar in approach to that heard this afternoon. The complex formal trajectory of the first movement (tempo markings given inadvertently in the programme as being those for the whole piece) was adroitly negotiated – audibly intensifying when the pervasive ‘fate’ motto emerges at the start of the development and reprise, then a coda whose ultimate implacability never descended into mere histrionics.
Its oboe melody limpidly rendered by Steve Hudson, the Andantino unfolded audibly as ‘in modo di canzona’ – the emotional surge of its central section (rightly) held in check and the closing pages suffused with pathos. Neither was the Scherzo treated as an excuse for empty virtuosity – strings articulating its ‘pizzicato ostinato’ outer sections with delectable humour, and woodwind relishing the ‘harmonien’ writing of its Allegro trio. Following on apace, the Allegro con fuoco found viable balance between untrammelled exuberance and a methodical progress such as makes the climactic return of the ‘motto’ structurally as well as emotionally inevitable. If MG-T (purposely?) underplayed this crucial episode, then there was no lack of resolve in her handling of a peroration which brought a defiant rather than triumphal close. Ukrainian flags on and above the platform were ample evidence of just where the thoughts of musicians and audience alike were directed. As postscript to this concert, MGT’s choice of a soulful Melody in A minor by the late Myroslav Skoryk could hardly have been more apposite.
Korngold Schauspiel-Ouvertüre, Op. 4 (1911) Price Piano Concerto in D minor (1932-4) Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888)
Dr Samantha Ege (piano, above), CBSO Youth Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein (below)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Sunday 27 February 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse. Picture of Joshua Weilerstein (c) Sim Canetty-Clark
The year’s first concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra programmed a staple of the symphonic repertoire with two works by composers whose success in their lifetimes subsequently faded almost to oblivion, only to meet with renewed acceptance in a very different cultural climate.
It might have been the first such piece he himself orchestrated, but Overture to a Drama finds the 14-year-old Erich Korngold in command of late-Romantic forces with a tonal opulence to match. Best here are the ominously modal introduction which returns transformed in a defiant peroration, and while the main sonata design rather goes through the motions – not least a ‘by numbers’ development – it engaged due to Joshua Weilerstein’s astute direction, not least his bringing out the wistful charm of its second theme (eloquently played by oboist Elly Barlow).
Florence Price’s Piano Concerto was met with a distinctly equivocal response when given at last year’s Proms, and it made a comparable impression today. The introduction – soloist in ruminative dialogue with trumpet and woodwind – promises much, but the actual Andantino proceeds rather dutifully to a half-hearted climax. This heads into a central Adagio where the piano arabesques elegantly dovetail with instrumental solos (notably cellist Eryna Kisumba) in a manner redolent of Edward MacDowell’s once-ubiquitous D minor Concerto. The final Allegretto unfolds to the rhythm of the Juba (precursor of Ragtime), but the overall effect is tepid compared to its use in Price’s symphonies, even if Samantha Ege (replacing an injured Jeneba Kanneh-Mason) might have made more of its vivacity on the way to a forceful close.
A prominent academic as well as pianist, Dr Ege recently met with considerable acclaim for her album of Price’s piano music Fantasie Nègre (Lorelt), and it would be well worth hearing her in a concerto of greater substance such as those by Adolphus Hailstork or George Walker.
Weilerstein (above) works extensively with youth orchestras, and there was doubting his rapport with these players in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Pensive if never turgid, the first movement’s introduction passed seamlessly into an Allegro whose rhythmic tensility held its expressive fervour in check. The coda’s march-past then found meaningful contrast with the sepulchral start of the Andante, its indelible horn theme (lucidly rendered by Alex Hocknull) part of an inevitable unfolding capped by a stormy return of the ‘fate’ motto and coda of gentle pathos.
Segueing unexpectedly but effectively into the Valse, Weilerstein duly made the most of this music’s elegance and insouciance. Nor did he lose focus in the Finale’s opening restatement of the motto-theme, whose appearance can all too easily pre-empt what follows. There was no lack of impetus as the music built purposefully towards an apotheosis whose affirmation was shorn of bombast, nor any risk of hectoring with the triumphal surge to the close. This is never an easy piece to bring off, and the present performance was rarely less then convincing.