In the first of two all-Tchaikovsky concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra, the principal guest conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), did precisely what he said he'd do at the previous night's "Discovery Concert": not "discover" or "re-discover" Tchaikovsky, but rescue him. Whether it's because MTT's family hails from the same village as Tchaikovsky or whether it's something far more simple, he has a profound affiliation with this great music. As his fascinating exploration the previous night had shown, MTT is in his prime - a great communicator and conductor, but more importantly a humble musician electrified by the music of Tchaikovsky. And with a virtuoso orchestra on hand, the ill that sometimes besets appreciation of Tchaikovsky's music - poor and downright hackneyed performance - was banished.
By beginning the programme with a rarity, The Storm Overture - Tchaikovsky's first major orchestral piece but a student work - MTT set out to prove that it was a prototype for Tchaikovsky's depressive pieces. Ending with "Manfred" - a late work and perhaps Tchaikovsky's greatest manifestation of tragedy - MTT neatly, but powerfully, squared the circle.
MTT adopted the seating configuration for the orchestra that Gergiev favours - fiddles facing each other at the edge of the stage, lower pitched instruments placed behind so balancing the violins' "wall" of high frequencies. It works marvellously. The "new" acoustic of the Barbican is bright and clear, but seldom have I heard the strings sound so full with the orchestral balance so rich. But this was an orchestra raring to go.
Vadim Repin was the soloist in the violin concerto. In the first two movements, the subtle, sad world of Onegin was evoked, with Repin's musical artistry overriding technical considerations. In the touching Canzonetta, Repin's opening suggested pensive improvisation. It's rare to see an orchestra applaud a soloist as hard as the audience.
Tchaikovsky believed "Manfred" was his best symphonic work "though because of its difficulty, impracticability and complexity, it is doomed to failure and to be ignored". Not here. MTT drew heartfelt playing from the orchestra, skilfully conveying the architecture of this massive piece while producing absolute clarity of detail. Only the Barbican's lack of an organ was a disappointment. MTT fulfilled his mission.Reuse content