It is late 1876. You are already an established composer with a gift for writing great heart-warming melodies. You have an idea for something which isn’t quite a cello concerto but will showcase that instrument. Not being a cellist yourself you turn for technical advice to the man who will later be known as one of the founders of the violincello school at your city’s Conservatoire. And then what happens? As you imparted much later to a visiting friend, Anatoly Brandukov: “Fitzenpupen (your nickname for the cello expert has excretory associations in the German) was here. Look what he has done with my composition, he’s altered everything.”

Alisa Weilerstein
© Harald Hoffmann | Decca

Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations would presumably have been a lesser work without Wilhelm Fitzenhagen’s input, yet it bears that composer’s unmistakeable seal. Not just in the grace and charm of the theme itself – the reference to rococo defines the ornamentation in the following variations rather than the origin of the melody – but in the soulfulness of Variations III and VI. This penultimate variation is like a foreshadowing of Eugene Onegin, composed in the year following, with its mournful clarinet solo and a singing line for the cello which reveals great depth of inner feeling. 

Alisa Weilerstein was the soloist with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester under its chief conductor Alan Gilbert. She clearly loves this work. She first played it as a mere slip of a 13-year-old, with Gilbert and the Cleveland Orchestra. Dressed in a gold brocade gown with a short train she looked every bit an imperial princess, nobility evident in her long arching phrases in Variation III, courtly elegance in the gavotte-like Variation IV and regal splendour in the final variation with its many virtuoso elements, all delivered in rich earthy tones. But she was also fully alive to the playful qualities of Variation II, and in the cadenza at the end of Variation V produced a sumptuous dynamic range from a deep growl to a hushed whisper. Throughout she maintained close eye contact with her conductor, who shaped the orchestral accompaniment with an instinctive feel for the balletic elements and the sparkle of instrumental textures.

In fact, Gilbert strikes me as a much better conductor of Tchaikovsky than Beethoven. He is not the most elegant presence on the podium, often shifting from one leg to the other, with energising lunges in different directions, looking at times as though he might be chopping a pile of wood. But he has a clear and precise beat with authoritative cueing, takes care over exact note values and balances his orchestra well. Nothing in his view of the Eroica sounded out of place. The problem with the goldilocks approach, however, is that it can verge on the bland. Does this conductor really have anything personal to say, was one of my nagging thoughts.

Gilbert seemed to be thinking more in sentences than in long structural paragraphs, the ascent in the first movement (complete with exposition repeat) all a little effortless, the climaxes in the Funeral March not hard won but merely arrived at, the fugal episode in the Finale without cumulative tension. Even with reduced string forces (ten firsts and four basses) it is possible to find more weight and solidity in the underlying harmonies. Nor were the woodwind ever allowed to misbehave: no minor-mode anguish in the opening Allegro con brio and an oboe solo that relished the daylight rather than the dark in the Marcia funebre.  Best of all was the Scherzo, which had plenty of drive and rhythmic propulsion. Just like several cans of energy drinks.