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Discover Tchaikovsky: Vadim Repin (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Barbican Centre, 10.11.2005 (AR)

Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra opened their ‘Discover Tchaikovsky’ concert with the composer’s The Storm, Overture for orchestra, 0p. 76 (1864). Whilst conducted and played with conviction, style and verve the work itself did not hold together and suffered from being a patchwork portmanteau of fragmented motifs and clichés familiar from the Tchaikovsky canon. The Storm does not have the invention or tight structure of the composer’s Hamlet, Op. 67, or Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasia, Op. 32. Yet Tilson Thomas held this anarchic score together with masterly control and the percussion in particular played with incisive precision.

What was so remarkable about the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 (1878) was the sensitive and dramatic support of Tilson Thomas and the LSO which made the work sound so symphonic. The first movement was broadly measured with angular pointed phrasing giving the music a jagged edge and dynamic tautness rarely heard before: here the music is often treated as background music to show off star soloists.

Siberian-born Vadim Repin’s appropriately grainy but bright tone was well matched to the gleaming timbre of the LSO. Repin played his 1708 Stradivarius ‘Ruby’ with absolute authority, control and conviction making the music flow freshly and with effortless ease from beginning to end and free from theatrical antics. In the closing of the first movement cadenza his high notes produced silver shards of shimmering sharpness that cut like razor blades through the ear. Whilst the tone sounded excruciatingly painful - almost like steel nails dragged along glass - it also had a pure and sublime simplicity.

In the Canzonetta Repin played with a solemn melting reserve and again blended beautifully with the woodwinds who answered his call with the most eloquent and poetic playing: the LSO woodwind are amongst the finest in the world now. In the Finale: Allegro vivacissimo Repin produced an appropriately rugged tone and played with fleeting flexibility bringing out the multiple moods of the music; the closing passages were gradually built up with the soloist making the music sound tense and intense, elevating the audience into rapturous applause. Tilson Thomas and the LSO gave much more than mere ‘support’: this was absolutely outstanding conducting and playing.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony in Four Tableaux, after Byron's Dramatic Poem, is arguably the most difficult of the composer’s symphonies to bring off either in the studio or in concert. Tonight’s performance is certainly the finest I have heard in concert and was close in conception to Maazel’s 1972 VPO account. It had the drama and intensity of Toscanini’s 1953 NBC SO account (though without the Maestro’s cuts: see further listening).

I heard Tilson Thomas conduct the Manfred over twenty years ago with the LSO to a half packed house on a Sunday afternoon at the RFH: both conductor and orchestra were off form and uninspired. Tonight Tilson Thomas and the LSO were on top form with both conductor and orchestra excelling themselves; this was the most beautifully played and intensely dramatic Manfred I have ever heard in concert.

In the opening of the Lento lugubre the divided strings allowed the cellos’ and double basses to come through with great presence producing a deep grainy, crunchy sound, so essential here. The five horns - when playing in unison - pointed upwards and played with glowing intensity whilst the punctuating trombones had a wonderful dark resonance; the LSO brass have never sounded so assured and so refined. Tilson Thomas moulded this movement perfectly having his hand on the striving pulse of the music, never allowing it to drag into a fragmented morass. The closing passages were perfectly paced with the percussion playing with utmost precision and bite: I have not heard the closing dry hard thud done with such shuddering impact and intensity.

The Vivace con spirito had a taut rhythmic buoyancy and graceful lyricism with Tilson Thomas making the music flow with the sparkling sensation of a waterfall lit by light from behind; indeed, the music really sparkled especially in the closing passages with the interplay between harps and pizzicato strings beautifully paced by conductor.

The Andante con moto was extraordinary in the multiple contrasting moods between light and dark that the conductor drew from his players; again Tilson Thomas had his hand of the pulse of the music making it flow with such an elegant line as well as with a passionate thrusting urgency. Exceptionally exquisite playing came from the clarinet, cor anglais and oboe solos.

The concluding Allegro con fuoco had a sense of manic unfolding energy with conductor enticing playing of white-hot intensity and expressivity. The organ was well balanced with the orchestra and produced a powerful and stirring sound but without drowning out the orchestra; another striking feature was the absolutely sublime and sparkling harp playing. Tilson Thomas subtly diminished the manic music slowly delivering it to silence. This was a masterly conducted and superbly played performance leaving the audience stunned and mesmerized as if drained of life. I suspect the sedate applause was due to sheer exhaustion and exhilaration of travelling through Tchaikovsky’s titanic score.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

The Storm, overture for orchestra, Op. 76; Sixth Symphony; London Symphony Orchestra, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (conductor): Regis Records: CD RRC 1214.

Violin Concerto, Myaskovsky: Violin Concerto; Vadim Repin (violin); Kirov Orchestra, St Petersburg, Valery Gergiev (conductor): Philips: CD 4733432.

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto Op35; Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47; Vadim Repin (violin); London Symphony Orchestra, Emmanuel Krivine (conductor): Warner WPCS-4801, Erato 0927 495532-2.

Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony in Four Tableaux, after Byron's Dramatic Poem, Hamlet Overture; Die Wiener Philharmoniker, Lorin Maazel (conductor): Decca Eloquence: CD 466 671-2.

Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony in Four Tableaux, after Byron's Dramatic Poem (from a concert, Carnegie Hall, January 10, 1953), Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture, after Shakespeare's Tragedy (from a concert, Carnegie Hall, March 21, 1953); NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini (conductor): Music & Arts CD-4260(1).

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