Tchaikovsky was a young composer of age 26 when he wrote his Symphony no. 1 in G minor "Winter Daydreams" with much struggle and agony. While the initial reviews were not always positive and the piece is not as well known or performed as his later symphonies, it has many of the hallmarks of his unique place in the 19th century classical music. From the opening bars of quiet violins, the composer sought to connect his personal sensibilities with both the prevailing classical symphonic tradition and his Russian background. With its dreamlike and romantic melodies, sometimes combined with Russian folk music themes, the symphony conjures up visual images of Russian winter landscapes and already has unique footprints of what makes Tchaikovsky one of the most important Russian composers of the 19th century.

The Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado has led the Orchestra of St Luke's as its Principal Conductor since 2011, and the partnership so far seems to be a happy one.  Mr Heras-Casado is respectful of the experienced musicians of the orchestra and the orchestra responds with finely tuned professionalism. The performance this evening was no exception. Mr Heras-Casado often showed restraint in guiding the musicians, and they in turn showed remarkable skills and quiet sophistication to bring out the subtle beauty of the score.

In the first movement, the focus on the clear and distinct texture of each instrumental section, starting with the strings, seamlessly and inevitably led to a thrilling ensemble under Mr Heras-Casado’s sure hand. If the slow middle section seemed a little languid, it was a fitting lead in to the quiet ending. The orchestra was at its best in the Adagio and Scherzo, the core of the symphony. The quiet and contemplative mood of the second movement as the woodwinds introduced the folksong melodies was followed by superb horn playing that led to the climax with the entire orchestra. The Scherzo movement showed off the orchestra’s bright and clear timbre while the basic elegant tone was maintained.  

The musically problematic fourth movement, Tchaikovsky struggling with varying tempi and motifs, was again conducted with remarkable calm and control, and Mr Heras-Casado succeeded in conveying the shifting moods and transparent texture of the music. The sumptuous melodies were never milked to excess; the brightness and energy of the brass and percussions as the piece concluded clearly foreshadowed the composer’s future symphonies.

The concert began with Stravinsky’s Suite no. 2, an early work composed during the period that also saw The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. The four pieces – Marche, Valse, Polka and Galop – are all short, lithe and at times full of cheerful energy. The orchestra played them as masterclass in chamber music, with magnificent contributions by the woodwinds, especially piccolo and flute. The brass section excelled in the jazzy music of Polka, and it was a pleasure to hear solid horn playing. The final Galop, with its juxtaposition of mostly fast-paced sections with occasional slow segments provided irony and humor.

Christian Tetzlaff was the perfect soloist to essay the middle selection of the evening, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. With his solid and refined technique, Mr Tetzlaff was light on his feet and his music, and played this crowd-pleaser with remarkable sophistication and a sometimes unconventional interpretation. He chose to follow the clear and beautiful melodies of the opening section of the first movement by energetic and rambunctious tempo to let the audience know that this would not be all sweet and pleasant. This came through most clearly in the cadenza that comes in the middle of the movement. Mr Tetzlaff skillfully mixed long and flowing melodies and aggressive manipulation of bowing technique. He took the conclusion of the movement very fast.

The orchestra gamely followed Mr Tetzlaff, and he was in turn a good team player as he seemed keen to blend his lines with the rest of the orchestra in the ensemble sections. I especially enjoyed the middle movement Andante as Mr Tetzlaff took special care to play each and every note with clarity and beauty. His use of vibrato in the middle section came somewhat unexpectedly and yet was delightful, and he concluded the movement with a particularly contemplative mood with his gracious long phrasing. The third movement showed off the orchestra participating as a full member of the concerto, with Mr Tetzlaff finally letting go and showing off his virtuosity with deft and subtle ornamentation. The support from the winds and brass was especially welcome. This was both a creative and interesting demonstration of a familiar piece by a master violinist and a perfect introduction to Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony.