Single-composer programmes can be risky affairs. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, after all. Fortunately, this all-Tchaikovsky programme from the CBSO contained three sufficiently contrasting pieces, ensuring that we did not tire of the melancholic Russian master’s works. The classical elegance of the Variations on a Rococo Theme was an ideal foil to the epic and tragic psychodrama of the Manfred Symphony.

Andris Nelsons with the CBSO © Neil Pugh
Andris Nelsons with the CBSO
© Neil Pugh

Daniel Müller-Schott was the soloist in the Rococo Variations, playing with an unswerving sweetness of tone and security of intonation. His art was in making even the most virtuosic of passages seem effortless. Furthermore, his rapport with conductor Andris Nelsons and the orchestra was very much in evidence. Nelsons showed himself to be a master accompanist, sticking with Müller-Schott like glue through the work’s many tempo transitions as well as his tasteful touches of rubato.

Müller-Schott played the now-customary version of the piece, the original sequence having been reorganised by its dedicatee, William Fitzenhagen. It is a pleasing and logical re-working but quite different from the original, with the final variation having been removed and the excitable inner Allegro vivo movement inserted as a dazzling coda. It was certainly dazzling this evening and taken at a daringly swift tempo.

The orchestra, with reduced string forces, played with grace and style, perhaps reflecting Nelsons’ unusually laid-back physical stance. A particular highlight was the minor-key Andante variation that followed Müller-Schott’s cadenza. Taken almost dangerously broadly, it was a delight to listen to the soloist’s interplay with the orchestra’s principal clarinet.

The generous Müller-Schott offered an encore by Benjamin Britten, his “Declamato” from the second Cello Suite. Though beautifully played, and well-intentioned, I wondered if its mood was too intense to follow the relaxed brilliance of the Rococo Variations.

I tend to think of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony as an unofficial sequel to Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, his symphony in four movements with obbligato viola. This is not too far from the truth: the influential Russian critic Vladimir Stasov was so taken with Berlioz’s musical depiction of Byronic prose that he conceived a four-movement programme based on Byron’s Manfred and offered the idea to his favoured composer associate, Balakirev. The latter composer did not feel able to take the project on and sent it to Berlioz, who declined it supposedly due to ill health and old age. Eventually, Tchaikovsky was persuaded to compose the programmatic symphony. Perhaps there was something about the tortured character of Byron’s hero that he identified with.

This performance from the CBSO and Nelsons was one of finest things I have witnessed from their partnership to date. The playing was of the very highest order, from the opening, emphatic, bass woodwind statement of the recurring main theme to the unexpectedly muted chords that end the piece. Romantic, particularly programmatic, music seems to suit Nelsons well. His ability to lovingly mould and shape phrases and to power dramatic moments in the music to expressive extremes is just what this oft-overlooked symphony needs. The despairing climax towards the close of the first movement emerged shockingly out of silence and I have never heard such fury summoned at its finish before.

As with Harold in Italy, the Manfred Symphony features two relatively lightweight inner movements. The second movement is a scherzo vividly depicting Alpine fairies with tricky arabesques passed around the orchestra, which were deftly handled by the CBSO musicians. This movement is technically very difficult to bring off for a number of reasons but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this performance. The sumptuous central tune was a delight in the hands of the principal clarinet and then the violins. Leader, Lawrence Jackson’s highwire, filigree solo finished the movement in style.

The finale’s depiction of an orgiastic bacchanal was launched with excitable leaps from Nelsons and strings abandoning their previous sheen in favour of a more trenchant sound. It’s a truly uproarious opening section that promises much from the movement. None of the movements in this piece develop particularly organically in the way that symphonies traditionally should, but the finale is the most problematic in this respect. However, what is lost in cohesion is mostly made up for in spectacle. The entrance of Symphony Hall’s magnificent organ into the proceedings took many in the audience by surprise. The organ was perfectly tuned with the orchestra and set the seal on a thrilling performance that was mercifully recorded for posterity. I, for one, will await the disc with the expectation that it will set the benchmark for this work for some years to come.

*****