The vibrant tapestry of the orchestra – the most expansively diverse of ensembles – can convey anything from the innermost reaches of the psyche to vast landscapes of endless imaginative scope. Surely the genius of late Romantic Russian society found his voice through this medium, whose glorious Violin Concerto in D major and Symphony No. 5 in E minor were brought to life by the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera at Hall for Cornwall. It was a programme which (with the inclusion of Mussorgsky's luminous Prelude Khovanshina – Dawn Over the Moscow River) represented the awakening of creativity and the struggle to render it through form – a prominent dichotomy which plagued Tchaikovsky's musical career, but which he ultimately overcame as the popularity of the pieces attest.

Alexander Sitkovetsky
Alexander Sitkovetsky

Conductor Michal Klauza guided the ensemble as it welcomed the “dawn over the Moscow River, matins at cock crow, the patrol, and the taking down of the chains”. Resurrected from its operatic sketches by compatriots Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, Mussorgsky's work played with the completeness of a tone poem that painted a city-scape both enticing and ominous, beginning with the bright clarinet call which soared above a shimmering tremolo in the strings and percussion. Yet what ought to have been a tranquil invocation into diurnal ritual was wrought slightly askew by the acoustics of the venue, which condensed the great orchestral sound into a diminished shell occasionally broken by a distorted wind or brass. Motifs that should have emerged smoothly spiked uncharacteristically, and the charming dissolve of one solo into another was replaced by less subtle transitions. Luckily this did not entirely weaken the impressions that Mussorgsky portrayed, as Klauza guided each key change from jovial scenes to ones of sombre sentiment, before rising to a triumph of fortissimos that returned to the magical and anticipatory. It was a colourful montage which veered back and forth from one emotion to the next – a pattern which also become prevalent in the rest of the programme's works.

But Tchaikovsky's vivacious Violin Concerto didn't only involve geographic exploration in its ideas, though it teemed with folk influences. As the Russian self-consciously strove to find a sense of form, so did the violin strive to seek its voice – and it is this very exploration that virtuoso Alexander Sitkovetsky underwent which rendered his interpretation both exciting and intuitive. Though I would have liked a more expressive countenance, Sitkovetsky's collected composure revealed a confident musicianship which allowed for a reflective lyricism and a love for his homeland. Balancing a grainy timbre with a purity that resonated perfectly in the higher register, the Menuhin prodigy was able to compensate for the hall's muffled tones. He blended beautifully with the rest of the orchestra, while maintaining distinction. This meant that intoxicating gypsy-like melodies danced from violin to wind, allowing the theme to evolve from capricious dances to pastoral reveries in the sweeping strings, then thundering into a majestic celebration that involved the entire ensemble. Although I was less impressed by the first movement, I savoured the conflict between various moods. It met with a galvanizing calm in the Adagio however, with delicacy and tenderness before lurching into the allegro-vivacissimo of the concerto form that had an abruptly startling effect. At last, that formidable composure broke and the soloist unleashed a more vigorous persona, with flamboyant releases of the bow at the end of the flying passages. Yet the diligent violinist seemed to be more suited to his aptly-chosen encore piece, a Bach Sarabande which revealed the intricacies of his instrument with artful precision and measure. This achieved the calm before the storm of the brooding Symphony No. 5 after intermission.

This was the work which I was most anticipating, and I placed myself close to the ensemble so that the epic orchestral sound could saturate me with its cloak of multi-textured hues. The sonorous clarinet of the first movement felt deep and cavernous, sinking into a string section which seemed to dwell on its reflection of the theme, almost funeralesque in its demeanour. As with the concerto earlier in the programme, the melancholic strains livened into more optimistic folk-like motifs that layered well amongst the strings and winds, only to plunge once again into a darker tone. There were brief, whimsical reminisces of Swan Lake, and the second movement exuded a lament that was blissfully poignant, despite the solo horn troubled by the limited acoustic range of the hall. The iconic reverie was muffled and out of tune, with little of its song-like quality present. It was saved, however, through the development of the theme in the strings which carried the melody with a heartfelt beauty, as the keys and cadences toyed back and forth between jollity and sadness. As Tchaikovsky's tumultuous subconscious made itself visible through his attempt to straddle form, the work found a joyous respite in the third movement where one could finally sense that the composer forgot his troubles for a fleeting moment, though darkness lurked nearby. In a last great attempt at overthrowing his adversary, the fourth movement opened with a confident and determined vigour (occasionally reverting to a more foreboding temperament) that teemed with a sense of uncompromising victory. At the closing of the curtain, Tchaikovsky's perseverance prevailed and, after an equally daunting battle, the glorious orchestra of the Welsh National Opera defeated its acoustic limitations and succeeded in capturing both the fragility and heroism of the human spirit that Tchaikovsky personifies so well.

***11