Here’s one way to challenge concert-goers in three simple steps. First, choose two symphonies in the minor mode. Haydn? Don’t go for one of his popular or even named symphonies. Tchaikovsky? Avoid his numbered symphonies and select the one with the arguably flawed finale. Next, produce a sandwich filling which is anything but undemanding of the digestive system. Finally, make sure that there is a good hour of music in the first half as well as in the second, so that the concert ends late in the evening.

Omer Meir Wellber © Wilfired Hösl
Omer Meir Wellber
© Wilfired Hösl

Omer Meir Wellber, chief conductor designate of the BBC Philharmonic, but here in charge of another orchestra on the same latitude (albeit some degrees farther east), the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, didn’t exactly make things easy for his audience. And understandably, given the nature of the challenge, results proved somewhat mixed. Two whole centuries separate Haydn’s Symphony no. 80 in D minor and Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso no. 1, and yet in sharing the first half they had more in common with each other than either work did with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred.

Wellber directed the Haydn winningly from the harpsichord, using just thirty strings. Such small numbers (and for the Schnittke there were even fewer), without a heavy armoury of brass and percussion and with only modest woodwind, resound very effectively in these problematic acoustics and can deliver ideal clarity and transparency of texture. Collage is not a technique normally associated with Haydn, but this symphony and the Schnittke happen to share the same device. The former has a waltz-like sequence inserted quite unexpectedly into the first movement; the latter makes use in the fifth movement of his grandmother’s favourite tango picked out on the harpsichord. The Haydn features long pauses, daring modulations and excursions into strange tonalities, with surprising syncopations in the finale; the Schnittke manages to smuggle into an apparently classical framework a children’s nursery rhyme from the Soviet era, a wicked parody of Baroque composers in the Toccata movement, an atonal serenade as well as quotations from his own theatre and film scores.

Is there an instruction manual for engineering a prepared piano? This one sounded distinctly like Balinese wind chimes, giving an oriental feel as Wellber launched it on this instrument, before moving centre-stage to direct further proceedings from the harpsichord. The performance also benefited from the stylish and assured playing of the two violin soloists, Stefan Wagner and Rodrigo Reichel, who echoed each other most alluringly in the fourth movement Cadenza and then soared stratospherically at the end of the finale where Schnittke employs all the whirring cogs that make up his gigantic machine before allowing the music to subside ethereally against a counterpoint of susurrating strings and bass notes from the piano. Difficult Schnittke’s music might well be, but it always rewards closer acquaintance.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony was inspired by Byron’s dramatic poem in which the central character, autobiographical in nature, is driven to wander in the Alps and ponder his moral shortcomings, plagued by “a strong curse which is upon my soul”. The restlessness is certainly there in Byron’s verse-drama and is reflected in Tchaikovsky’s music, but at the very beginning of the work the falling phrases and plunging descents in the strings can only sensibly evoke the burden of guilt and weight of responsibility at a measured speed (the marking is, after all, Lento lugubre). When they are delivered like the frenzied stabbing sequence in the shower-scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the character of the music changes.

This was one of the fastest and most driven performances of Manfred I can ever recall hearing. Wellber is a lively presence on the podium, but I couldn’t help feeling that the waves of energy he kept on generating through wildly gyrating arms were being sent in too many directions at once. These did yield an effective response from all sections of the orchestra, but the symphonic structure ended up being buried under a succession of theatrical moments (including off-stage bells and heavy blasts from the Elbphilharmonie organ at the start of the apotheosis). Not surprisingly, evenness of line was often severely compromised. More especially, the tenderness which results from careful shaping of a melody, which is such an important feature of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for instance, was hardly in evidence.

Wellber’s brisk tempi worked best in the Vivace con spirito second movement, where a lightness of touch conveyed the vision of the Alpine Fairy very persuasively. Yet in the infernal bacchanal elements of the finale Wellber’s over-excitable direction produced playing that really was too fast for comfort. Perhaps it was designed to disguise the rather academic nature of the fugal passages for strings - frequently cited as one of the weakest parts of the entire work – but if that was indeed the intention it didn’t really succeed.