Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies are getting a fair bit of exposure at present, both in the concert hall and on disc, thanks to several complete symphony cycles being undertaken in the UK by the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and, here in Birmingham, by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Tonight’s concert featured the last instalment in their cycle: the third, also known as the “Polish”, chiefly because of the polonaise-like dance elements in the final movement.

Simon Trpčeski © Simon Fowler
Simon Trpčeski
© Simon Fowler

It is, possibly, the weakest of all his symphonies in terms of the work as a whole conception (for instance, are five movements one too many?) but it contains an abundance of great melodies and invention. Perhaps most importantly it is rather fun. It is the only one of his symphonies composed in a major key and it features some rather funky rhythmic passages in the first movement, which the orchestra and their music director, Andris Nelsons, were clearly enjoying at a swift tempo after the broodingly measured introduction.

Less convincing was the rubato that Nelsons applied in the waltz second movement, which more often than not veered into excess. Indeed, it would have been hard to recognise this as a waltz, never mind dance it. The relationship between the orchestra and their music director is such, however, that they followed him utterly securely. The quality of their playing throughout the concert was beyond reproach with strings often ravishing in their tone, a real boon in the lovely central movement of the symphony. Wind contributions were beautifully and deftly given, particularly in the ensuing scherzo. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts (and much characteristic leaping up and down on the rostrum) the swaggering but banal final movement failed to deliver the thrill that those of Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies do so effectively.

The Polish theme of the concert brought us Chopin’s first piano concerto in the first half, played by the Macedonian pianist, Simon Trpčeski. His performances here in Symphony Hall have all been delightedly received as he is clearly a virtuoso with a staggering technique. He is also a Chopin player of distinction, judging from his discography and his performance tonight. This is due, in part, to his tasteful and subtle use of rubato as well as his ability to shape Chopin’s long, singing phrases. Trpčeski is an engaging player, too, as his gazes into the audience during the piece’s lengthy orchestral expositions seemed to suggest.

Nevertheless, not even this sparkling, bravura performance, patiently and sensitively accompanied by Nelsons and the orchestra, could convince me that the piece is worthy of more than an infrequent showcase in the concert hall. This and Chopin’s other piano concerto are the only pieces he wrote for the orchestra and, aside from some lovely writing for the heroic principal bassoon as regular duo partner for the pianist, the reasons why were clearly in evidence. The piano writing itself is lovely and contains some nice ideas but I suspect that these could have been expressed in solo, if not chamber, form more effectively. Also, at around 45 minutes in length the concerto would try the patience of many a listener.

Still, Nelsons and Trpčeski worked hard to bring out the Slavic, melancholy character of the rondo finale. Trpčeski treated us to a Chopin Waltz as an encore, which, he informed us, he had learned at the age of seven or eight years! Its charm was in its simplicity and it also served to show that the composer was at his best when composing for solo piano.

We were treated to Strauss’s playful Till Eulenspiegel to begin proceedings. I recall attending Nelsons’s first public concert with the CBSO and really feeling that a special chemistry existed between the conductor and this composer. This has proved to be the case and, aside from Andre Previn, there is not a conductor alive today who I would wish to hear more in this repertoire than Nelsons.

It is good, therefore, that he and the orchestra are setting down the Strauss tone poems on record. That said, this concert opener seemed strangely out of place in the context of the evening’s other pieces.. As such, it was hard to escape the feeling that the evening’s programme had been designed with the microphones in mind more so than the audience.

***11