Orchestras everywhere have been itching to get started again as the lure of post- pandemic normality takes hold. Many have seized opportunities to organise one-off events or stage short tours taking in some of the traditional summer festivals. Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie has put together an attractive festival programme of concerts and recitals to whet appetites and bridge the gap to the new season about to start. Under its principal conductor Alan Gilbert, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester went for a Russian pairing: Prokofiev for a concerto of sorts and a Tchaikovsky symphony to bring the house down.What a joy also to see and hear a very full string complement, complete with eight double basses, without social distancing, for the main work. 

NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester
© Michael Zapf

Composers’ first and second thoughts about individual works often divide opinion. Prokofiev, unlike Sibelius who revised his Violin Concerto within just two years, took almost two decades to refashion his Cello Concerto, Op.58, and turn it into what he called “Simfonia-Kontsert”, his Symphony-Concerto, Op.125. The nomenclature is itself tricky. It is not a Sinfonia concertante, for the solo instrument does not engage in direct dialogues with members of the orchestra, apart from a brief episode in the Finale involving a string sextet. The solo cello is prominent throughout and has a quite taxing cadenza to negotiate in the middle movement with octave leaps and slides as well as furious double-stopping. Its greatest champion was Mstislav Rostropovich whom I was privileged to hear in that role; since his death it has lacked a strong personality to push it consistently into the public eye.

The soloist in this performance was Andreas Grünkorn, one of two principal cellists in this orchestra. He has a burnished aristocratic tone but without a big sound, and though he rose to all the technical challenges – it is fiendishly difficult to play in parts – his projection could at times have been more soloistic, the emotional commitment just a little deeper. In short, what was missing was more of the Russian soul, though at the start of the central Allegro giusto he and the orchestra supplied those touches of melancholy which seem to inhabit all Russian works.

Gilbert accompanied very judiciously, relishing the contrasts between the angularity of the score and the lyrical moments of bittersweet contemplation. Echoes of Romeo and Juliet, especially in solo contributions from the bassoon, were inescapable, as were the minatory horns in the Finale taken straight out of Peter and the Wolf. This final movement saw both soloist and orchestra at the top of their game, with the celesta adding further colouring. Grünkorn’s succession of rapid quavers set against menacing brass and scurrying strings towards the close was utterly exhilarating.

Gilbert responds instinctively to Russian music and he was also in his element in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor. Fate was writ large from the start, with martial-sounding brass, insistent timpani and incisive yet warm-toned strings. He was equally sensitive to the balletic episodes such as the rocking string melody taken sotto voce. In these crystalline surroundings the woodwinds, especially the melting oboe, spoke most eloquently in their dialogues with the strings, none more so than in the Andantino. The pizzicato strings in the Scherzo sounded like a swarm of bees, not angry but entirely benevolent, with a fine calibration of the dynamics. Come the Finale, taken con fuoco as marked, what struck me was not just the brilliance of the playing, with a sharp piccolo and piercing trumpets accentuating the fireworks of the coda, but the tenderness in the score which provides the Yin to contrast with the extroversion of the Yang. Gilbert paid careful attention, here as elsewhere, to all the inner voices of what Tchaikovsky himself called “my best symphonic work”.