Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 (1866, rev. 1874), while today enjoying its rightful standing in the ‘classical’ repertoire, had to work somewhat harder to earn its place there than some of his later creations. This may be because in contrast to his Fourth Symphony, which explores fate and the force of destiny, his First, which carries the title of ‘Winter Daydreams’, does not stand out as so obviously monumental.
Whilst the piece is perhaps calmer and more reflective than some of his later symphonies, this makes it no less skilful or absorbing. Indeed, the work becomes particularly intriguing and important when it is considered that Tchaikovsky had no Russian symphonic tradition to draw upon, Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Symphony preceding Tchaikovsky’s own original creation by less than a year.
The Russian mind-set until that point had been to think in terms of fully formed musical statements (or decoratively), and so the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra’s brilliant demonstration of the symphony’s organic growth, and of the sheer richness of the thematic development, proved both welcome and enlightening. The smooth transition from the quietest of openings to the subtle embracing of the flute and bassoon in the first movement was executed with brilliant integrity, and the introduction of the second subject and the ending in which the sound seemed to evaporate before our very ears were both captured particularly well.
The second movement revealed the strings’ own quality of sound in the subdued opening and close, as well as the talents of several wind instrumentalists. For example, the flute replicated the oboe’s fourth phrase in such a way that the sounds produced by each generated entirely different experiences. The third movement proved thoroughly engaging, while the Finale was executed with such a combination of passion and integrity that it became easy to overlook the movement’s fundamental lack of inner growth.
Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Op. 35 (1916) came after the interval. This remarkable piece, which in its 24 minute long single movement effortlessly combines pentatonic, chromatic, whole-tone and bitonal elements, seemed to have found its soul-mate in the form of Latvian Proms debut artist Baiba Skride. She combined a lightness of touch with a sincerity of purpose that made this piece feel coherent on the one hand and yet totally mysterious and otherworldly on the other. One cannot help but feel that Szymanowski would have approved wholeheartedly.
Like Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940), which turned out to be the last thing that Rachmaninov ever wrote, needed time to be accepted for their true worth, having initially enjoyed a mixed reception. This exemplary performance succeeded particularly in bringing out the contrasts between the exuberant and eerie sections in the three-part first and third dances, while Vasily Petrenko’s conducting style, his arms seeming to dance in their own right, proved especially effective at bringing such an elegant buoyancy to the proceedings.