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SSO Tchaikovsky 5 James Ehnes plays Prokofiev review (Sydney Opera House)

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There’s a depiction on the cover of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s program for Tchaikovsky 5 (performed last weekend) which seems especially relative. It’s Makovsky’s Russian Beauty. Makovsky was a contemporary of  Tchaikovsky. When we think of the fifth, we can’t help but think of Beethoven. And it’s been observed that the Russian’s work, in four movements, follows a similar arc. Mixed feelings abound about it: the man himself, who conducted its debut on November 18, 1888, at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, not only thought but declared it a failure. This, primarily thanks to its ending, which many have considered, to put it politely, unpolished. But there’s no accounting for taste. Even Tchaikovsky’s. The fact is 5, as I shall call it, is one of his most popular works. And, if you look past the controversial denouement to the second movement, for example, which essentially embodies all of Mr. T’s best traits (if you’re as old as I am you’ll remember it, perhaps somewhat tragically, as the Winfield theme), insofar as admirable orchestration, character, colour and naked emotion. But let’s begin at the beginning.
The first movement relies, to begin with, on a dirge-like theme being carried, principally, by lower strings and a lonely, despondent couple of clarinets, cast into a dark wilderness. It’s expressive of the E Minor embedded in the full-blown title of the work. To call a spade a shovel, it’s depressing; albeit in the most poetic, beautiful way. It’s not at all difficult to conjure heavy snow clouds over a mournful St Pete, perhaps grieving for the loss of its citizens in battle.
As it develops, it has something of the aesthetic of an official military homage, even while invoking folk melodies. Its compositional success is built on restraint, dynamics and timing. Aurally and emotionally, though, the effect couldn’t be more dramatic. While the strings march, flourishes emerge, like voices from an unruly, revengeful mob. Big, blasting, corporate flourishes on horns are counterpointed with demure ‘comments’ from an oboe, a flute, a plaintive cello. One can feel something brewing, movement afoot. There are distant heralds, drawing ever closer; calls to action. There’s a lot going on. Outbreaks. The crowd sounds increasingly restless. The latent, brooding energy suddenly bursts with kinetic vitality: depth-charges from timpani; determinedly bowed basses. Then, it’s as if the fog of war momentarily clears and the orchestra surprises us by quelling the turmoil and easing into a waltz, but one that becomes increasingly frenetic, before matters escalate to fever-pitch once again.
That’s just my story, and for now at least I’m sticking to it. But that’s the point. Tchaikovsky, apparently, had no narrative in mind for this work, though there’s an admixture of evidence and conjecture to suggest he mightn’t have been entirely straight with us. The hard evidence lies in sketches and notes on his original manuscript. He appears to have been grappling with the big questions: fate; faith; love. No wonder it sounds as tumultuous as a battleground.
The T5 was the main course on this menu and, for me, the main attraction: I have a bias towards the Russian, probably predicated by the fact that the first classical music I ever remember hearing, which had a profound and indelible effect, was Mr. T’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by Van Cliburn, in Moscow, conducted by Kiril Kondrashin. Even as a child, I was truck and mesmerised by the sheer force and passion of the music. And as with that work, this symphony, even while constantly revealing a genius for orchestration, is distinguished, above all, not by technical prowess, but its propensity to move the listener.
The second movement, trust me, you will (as I’ve mentioned) know, at least after a fashion. In rearranged form, it scored a massive television campaign, fronted by Hoges. It certainly takes on a rather different hue and meaning in its original form, but I don’t think we need be too snobbish or superior about its commercial use. Sometimes, perversely, such incidences may actually suffice as rater crude introductions to classical music. In any case, it is, at once, stately and ravishing.
Thirdly, Tchaikovsky soothes us with a lush, pastoral waltz, as good as any ever penned and, again, I don’t think there need be any sniffing about a waltz being interpolated into serious music; especially when it’s this good.
Finally,  the controversial last movement in which we hear the theme, or motto, first stated by those clarinets, recapitulated, but transformed from the minor to major key to tery different effect. That the composer almost reviled its conclusion is far greater testament, to my ears, to his striving for excellence than any material failure.
My first reference point for this work is a live recording by the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. And another by Leopold Stokowski. And Bernstein’s isn’t exactly chopped liver. But, on the night, under the often balletic baton of visiting Swedish conductor Thomas Sondergard, the SSO went off. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an orchestra sound better in the Concert Hall; every bead of sweat expended, hanging precariously on every brow, was heard and felt. It was explosive. Thrilling. It even kept the audience quiet and virtually motionless. Now there’s a first. It would’ve been worth attending for this alone, but there was Prokofiev and Stenhammer into the bargain. With the former, we got soloist James Ehnes, who delivered impeccably. And his encore of Bach was exceptional.
This was as good as orchestral rendition gets. And Sondergard had everything to do with wringing out every drop of the SSO’s rigour and vigour.
[box]The concert reviewed was performed on Friday, October 10. Main image: Tchaikovsky in 1893, as painted by Nikolai Kuznetzov. The video below shows the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted by Peter Oundjian. Recorded at the Sydney Opera House in February 2011.[/box]

One response to “SSO Tchaikovsky 5 James Ehnes plays Prokofiev review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. It’s great to read that the SSO did a wonderful performance, but we had to read through 8 paragraphs of description of the composition itself before getting to that. This was more of a program note than a review….

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