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The playing of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (@rpoonline) had last been previewed on these pages, in advance of a concert at The Corn Exchange, Cambridge (@CambridgeCornEx), when they were to give a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Opus 55, under Christoph Koenig. They returned with a concert of works, solely by Tchaikovsky.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) :
1. ‘Fantasy Overture’ Romeo and Juliet, TH 42, ČW 39 (1869 (revised 1880))
2. Variations on a Rococo Theme, for cello and orchestra, Opus 33 (1877)
3. Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64 (1888)
The opening statement of the (1) ‘Fantasy Overture’ Romeo and Juliet almost evoked Greek Orthodox chant, but flourished into another kind of beauty and tranquillity, with a sense of space given by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s (@rpoonline’s) subtle pizzicato. As the sound built emotively, still it felt to be delaying – whether we knew the piece, and what Christoph Koenig was having the ensemble delay for – and even when, with percussive reinforcement, there was a pulsing, it was heard dying away in the woodwind and brass.
Not so in the strings, which maintained the momentum, and heralded the gorgeous melody (which it is convenient to refer to as ‘the love theme’), although it did still cut away to piano. When we hear the blossoming of the theme, it is understated – harp, strings and the plangency of the oboe are ‘in reserve’. Koenig established Tchaikovsky’s tension through a suspensive mood, which broke out into a very forceful passage for timpani and brass in a whirl, and then quickly dissolved to woodwind over brass over lower strings.
The love theme is drawn forth with rich brass, but it gives way to the strings to explore another crescendo, and the theme is vanquished by an impassioned statement. Except that, in a coda with a pizzicato bass-pulse, which resolves the earlier monastic feel in the woodwind, we have the apotheosis of the love theme in measured terms : the work can conclude with the usual cadences, timpani and brass to the fore.
The initial section of the (2) Variations feels fresh, and opens in media res. It has an amiable conversationality to it, and cellist Laura van der Heijden (@LauraVDHCello) was clear and unfussy in making a statement of the principal theme for the work, yet bringing out the (good-)humour and its feeling. Tchaikovsky, through adept use of linking passages, brings us first into the variations, and then from one to the next : the first was as of a promenade, with winsome phrasing, whereas the second resembled the soloist in conversation with the orchestra, about the urbanity of their treatment of this material.
Next, came a sunset-tinged emotion, supported at its reticent heart by woodwind, and desirous of being heard, with which Tchaikovsky contrasted a mood with quiet flute and clarinet and pizzicato strings – van der Heijden was inward looking, as if to deeper things, and in improvisatory mode. After this time, in which (and in the preceding variation) the origins of the heart of the work can be located, Tchaikovsky concentrates on the upper strings of the cello in the next variation, with our soloist bringing out the accents in the writing, and Koenig creating an expansive feeling in the orchestra.
From here, and despite sprightly additions from principal flute Helen Keen, the work is not always brighter, but it is increasingly virtuosic : with trills and use of tremolo, some intense cadenza-like writing in the bass register, and even the impression of Tchaikovsky seeking to continue to explore it (even at the cost of keeping off reaching a finale) ? Eventually, this intense solo reverie does conclude, and it led into what van der Heijden and Koenig gave a distinct Scottish feel. It is vigorous writing for cello, played with liveliness and keen phrasing, and there are interactions between soloist and instrumentalists that keep us guessing as to the composer’s overall direction :
He gives us quick tutti sections, and ones where the soloist is moving over pizzicato strings : we heard van der Heijden going to the theme and unearthing more in it (as if it were a mineral-seam), and one minute being soulful on the lowest string, but then with brisk octaves and harmonics. Not just because there is nowhere else to go from here, and any set of variations must end (even if, with perhaps the most famous set (BWV 988), Bach movingly takes us back to the Aria where we began), Tchaikovsky momentarily jumps to quite another frame of mind to close the work, and to great applause for van der Heijden, who had clearly much impressed in her appearance at The Corn Exchange.
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64 (1888) :
1. Andante - Allegro con anima
2. Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza
3. Valse - Allegro moderato
4. Andante - Allegro maestoso
In (3) the Symphony No. 5, the clarinets quietly stated the opening theme of the Andante, on which Tchaikovsky has the bassoons and strings enlarge. Gradually, over time, Koenig led us into the energy of the Allegro con anima (which, as it emerged, did feel like ‘anima’, in a fully spirited sense), and we were introduced to the counter-theme, before the initial one returned, but with interruptions / interjections.
In a way, we were back to the opening of the concert, and the language and emotion of the Fantasy Overture, with that same sense of the composer in a whirlwind, exploring in, out and around the material. In all this, the RPO, under Koeing, was using dynamics very carefully, and the movement, and its close, were very understated.
As a second movement slowly starting and marked Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza (which means ‘with some freedom’), this one is quite a bit shorter, and begins with an emotional tutti, which nevertheless felt inward and restrained, and then a quiet solo horn superposed to give a tender statement of thematic content (with some support from the principal clarinet). Even as the horn is concluding, Tchaikovsky picks out moving his attention, for a cognate theme to be passed from oboe to clarinet to the basses.
Principal horn Laurence Davies, now with other woodwind players and more prominent orchestral accompaniment, revisited that theme, which is soon given over to string immersion : it develops to a soaring passage, but is ultimately held back, and leads to contributions in a folk idiom on clarinet, which the bassoon then brings out. Revolving the material results in a passionate crescendo, concluding with strings, timpani and horns (in a theme that will be heard, in less un-triumphant form, at the close of the work).
The mood calmed to first violins pizzicato, and with woodwind and brass, which felt like it might be an easier formulation for the symphony (and its composer) on which to meditate, and then gave rise to a full, unrestrained statement. A vigorous counter-melody came from the brass, but afterwards a decrescendo to a softer, more exposed, and very quiet end.
In comparison, not least, with what has gone before, Koenig made the Valse feel effortless, and it went with a sway, first the basses offering comments, and then the principal flute and oboe, and so on. When Tchaikovsky does bring us back to the feeling of the opening, Koenig drew out more of a sense of the quirkiness in the horn part. Before drawing the movement to a definite and quick close, he had Paul Boyes bring out the main theme, in sombre guise, on bassoon.
At the same time that the closing movement opened Andante, with a statement of the principal theme, we heard a hesitant one of subsidiary material*, and then Tchaikovsky opens out into variation form : fast, rhythmical writing that dominates our attention, and heralds bell-like descending motifs.
More peal-like gestures follow, treating the theme as a short fanfare, and could be heard in the strings and the brass, before arpeggiated string-writing ushered in a sudden tutti, and yet further figurations as of bells. Tchaikovsky takes the related theme through a series of rising modulations, and, on drawing in the timpani and brass, Koenig led the orchestra into a crescendo, which, with a drum-roll, fell back again to the second theme.
The close to the symphony, which now felt very ceremonious (hence the dignity conferred by Allegro maestoso), established the falling motifs and peals in their place, with the strings taking the latter up and down in celebration, ably assisted by the brass, including trombones. Its coda was characterized by a very quick, rising passage, building up to a full close – with full brass, woodwind, and timpani.
All in all, a very pleasurable and successful evening with Tchaikovsky, through Koenig and the RPO's welcome residency in Cambridge : a few years ago on The South Bank, Martyn Brabbins gave all of Beethoven's Symphonies in one day, so who know whether a Tchaikovsky all-nighter of the Concertos and Symphonies would appeal to Cambridge... ?
* A little as with Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique ?
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)