It is quite unusual to attend a concert and feel you have listened to two different orchestras in each half, even though the same was playing both. This was the case in the all-Tchaikovsky concert that the Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu gave with pianist Katia Buniatishvili. There was a common denominator in both parts: the excellent work of Chief Conductor Josep Pons.

Josep Pons © Igor Cortadellas
Josep Pons
© Igor Cortadellas

There is no doubt that Buniatishvili is an impressive pianist, with a perfect technique and an ability to easily tackle fast passages. She seems to feel more comfortable in fireworks, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor, one of the most popular concertos ever written, gave her the opportunity to display her virtuosity. The first movement was well played, and the rapport between the soloist and the orchestra was fine. We could enjoy the power of the piano part, aside from some minor mistakes in the ascendant scales which were understandable given the high emotions. Maybe it was a little bit too fast; it is marked Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, but it still works as an Allegro.

The second movement is a delightful Andantino semplice. The initial dialogue between flutes and piano is a nice passage in which problems became a little bit more evident. The orchestra played slowly, while Buniatishvili seemed to be in a hurry. There were no mismatches, but tension increased in a movement which is conceived as a quiet moment before the final Allegro con fuoco.

In this last movement, the differences between the orchestra and the soloist finally became insurmountable. Josep Pons chose a tempo with which the soloist did not seem to agree. After the orchestral introduction, Buniatishvili set off notably quicker, so Pons needed to accelerate the orchestra to avoid major problems. Luckily, the response of the orchestra was efficient, but they could not solve or even hide the fact that this movement sounds great as an Allegro con fuoco, but does not work as a Presto con fuoco. It requires a high speed, but if played even quicker some parts are missed in the turmoil. For example, the passage in which there is dialogue between flute and the piano, even though all the notes were admirably played, the effect of Tchaikovsky’s score was completely lost.

The second half of the concert was completely different. The Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu has made a remarkable evolution during recent years under Pons' direction. One of his aims has been to offer more concerts with symphonic repertoire, apart from the opera season. Without the need to follow the tempo of a dashing soloist, the orchestra found its way through one of the most philosophical works Tchaikovsky ever composed. With the initial Andante, calm returned to the stage and the music flowed smoothly. Pons put the accent on the contrast between slow tempi and rhythmical, explosive moments, such as the Allegro con anima in the first movement. The elegance of the waltz led to the magnificent fourth movement, with an exquisite balance between the different orchestral groups, which evolved in different lays until the impressive coda.