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Tchaikovsky via Paris – MAGNIFIQUE…!!

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
01/25/2016 -  January 20 (Paris), 28 (New York), 29 (Newark), 30 (Greenvale), 31 (Washington), 2016
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Julian Rachlin (violin)
Orchestre National de France, Daniele Gatti (conductor)

D. Gatti

The combination of France’s veteran Orchestre National performing with an Italian conductor and Lithuanian violinist – each a rising star in the millennium’s music firmament – was one which eluded prediction for a new audience. What Ottawa’s sold-out Southam Hall heard was a fine orchestra which, however, did not sound particularly French and concluded the evening with a broad, richly controlled and, to say the least, quite spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

From the start, Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was played with a low key intensity which had eluded the players during the concert’s first half. The strings were immediately more subtle from the first notes of the Symphony’s quiet, unassuming opening. While some conductors tear through the work in barely forty minutes, Milan-born Daniele Gatti (the ensemble’s music director since 2008 and, beginning this year, chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw) stretched it to about fifty minutes and the result was a revelation. The opening theme is the genesis for the entire Symphony and while the first movement further encompasses more standard first and second subjects then development and recapitulation, what Tchaikovsky does is to spread the overall development of his initial materials throughout the entire Symphony. While the materials are always spectacularly beautiful, as we’d expect from one of history’s most prolific melodists and ingenious orchestrators, there is far more going on in this work than merely a succession of pretty tunes and flashy climaxes.

The Orchestre National’s performance made the work seem more like Mahler, especially the second movement Andante cantabile which is easily trivialized. But in this performance we heard a series of slowly developed themes, almost variations, which eventually reached a monumental climax very parallel to that in the languorous third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The strings were especially and consistently superb.

The third movement of the Tchaikovsky is a waltz rather than scherzo, effectively extending the lyricism of its preceding movement. The Orchestre played it with calibrated delicacy and the protracted ending was realized to perfection. If the Symphony’s first three movements anticipate Mahler, the finale is more in the spirit of Beethoven in ‘Eroica’ mode. The conductor, Daniele Gatti, understands this music totally and let the initial themes proceed to the more energized development which Tchaikovsky commences after a few minutes. Some conductors make this stretch seem arbitrary, even trite or congested but Maestro Gatti was in full command and let the music flow with the complexity and clarity more commonly expected from the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

By any standards, the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 was a magisterial performance, not only in technical and basic artistic terms, but in presenting a vision and not just an interpretation of the music which likely made more than a few listeners feel they were hearing it almost for the first time. This is a rare experience for even the most veteran and/or jaded concertgoers.

The performance’s first half was fairly good, if not quite at the exalted levels which came later. The opening reading of Debussy’s warhorse Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, was a bit rushed (including the familiar flute opening) and while always competent enough, lacked any kind of sustained subtlety or even dynamic range. The playing tended to seem too loud, though I wondered if this might be on account of my seat (row F) being unusually close to the players – however, the Tchaikovsky later on made it clear they could deliver genuine pianissimo when required.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is an awkward work, seeming almost a random assembly of tenuously related segments. The first movement is titled Nocturne, and the hushed opening leads to an interesting dialogue between celesta and bass strings. The following Scherzo is arguably a reworking of Dukas’ L’Apprenti sorcier, while the third movement Passacaglia is an extended dirge. The final Burlesca is definitely the Concerto’s highlight, a sequence of fireworks which not surprisingly generated an immediate standing ovation.

Soloist Julian Rachlin was impressive throughout, producing a sleek, rather modern sound from his vintage Stradivarius and playing with staggering virtuosity in the lengthy and elaborate cadenza which connects the final two movements.

However, it was the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 which truly made this concert an extraordinary event.

Charles Pope Jr.



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