Do we really need to rediscover Tchaikovsky? Michael Tilson Thomas seems to think so, and is championing the great Romantic Russian composer in a short series of concerts at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Is the premise for the series really valid? On one level, it’s great to have the opportunity to hear rarely-performed works such as the Manfred Symphony. On another, the re-appraisal of a well-known piece like the Violin Concerto has resulted in an a performance that was so hell-bent on being different that it seemed to miss the point at times.
The Violin Concerto is usually played as an exuberant display of emotion, but here Tilson Thomas treated the first movement so gingerly that it almost came to a stand-still at times. Every phrase had to be pointed, local nuance had to be emphasised. But where was the over-arching structure? This music has the ability to overwhelm the senses; here it deadened them.
The soloist was Vadim Repin, the famous young Siberian violinist. His performance was admirably un-theatrical, but it would have been nice to see him take command of both his instrument and the stage more often. After all, technial display is at the heart of the concerto. In the lower register he produced exquisite tone on his 1708 Stradivarius, but in the cadenzas the higher notes were excruciatingly exposed.
The first movement plodded along with such little energy that there was barely any contrast in the second. Here there was some sense of romance at least, but the tone was woolly and the orchestral accompaniment murmered too much in the background rather than giving us the colours we expect from this exalted band.
The concert started with a performance of the ‘Storm’ Overture, a dramatic little piece that was given a stirring if hollow rendition. The brass and winds were on top form, which made up for a lack of shape.
Whereas the interpretations of both pieces in the first half jumped inflexibly between the loud and fast and the quiet and lethargic, the second half provided a more than compensatory journey through the Manfred Symphony.
This is Tchaikovsky in programmatic mode, telling the story of Manfred’s incestuous love for the beautiful Astride (who he doesn’t know is his sister at first); the story is said to have resounded with the composer, whose illicit love for various men caused him much unease, perhaps leading to his suicide.
Tilson Thomas brought out the best from the orchestra: all kinds of shades at a local level, yet never losing sight of the melodramatic atmosphere. The first movement was particularly impressive, with the horns and cellos excellent in the opening Manfred theme.
The whirling patterns in the second movement gave the flutes and strings time to show off their dexterity, with the violins benefiting from their division on the platform. When the main theme returned, the LSO strings soared as only they can, making this a special moment.
The third movement was beautifully executed, with the pastoral evocations of birdsong handled deftly by oboe and clarinet in particular; the cor anglais was marvellous throughout. If the final movement lost some focus, that’s probably the fault of the music, which imposes an organ at the last minute to negative effect.
In the end it was a worthwhile effort, though I hope the first Piano Concerto is given a more persuasive and less fussy reading on Sunday night than this evening’s concerto.