With the recent bout of Siberian weather in Montreal, last night’s evening of Russian music at the Maison Symphonique felt positively balmy. Under the baton of Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, and featuring his wife Viktoria Postnikova on piano, the OSM’s performance of two works by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky brought a little warmth to our snow-frozen city.

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky © Wladimir Polak
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
© Wladimir Polak

The concert opened with the programmatic Manfred Symphony (unnumbered, but written after he wrote his Fourth and before the Fifth: no. 4.5, if you will). Based on a poem by Lord Byron, the symphony recounts the über-Romantic tribulations of Manfred, who, desperate to escape the cruel torments of his past, the hopeless longings of his present, the never-ending and always unanswerable questions of existence, wanders the Alps in despair. In short, our Romantic hero is heartbroken over the loss of his lover Astarte, and neither his wanderings nor his attempts to summon the powers of darkness bring him relief. All is not yet lost, however: in the second movement an Alpine Fairy miraculously appears in a waterfall’s rainbow, and in the third, solace is sought among the simple mountain people. But alas, during the obligatory Bacchanale in an underground palace in the fourth movement, the ghost of Astarte appears, foretelling the end of Manfred’s earthly sufferings, at which point he finds the relief he has been seeking... in death. Those Romantics: what pleasure they took in suffering for love!

From the opening bassoon solo to the heavenly harps to the percussion (so satisfying to the Romantic soul, the long, slow, agonizing build-ups from triple pianissimo strings to the fortissimo explosion of cymbals, timpani, bass drum, and full orchestra!), the first movement highlights not just Tchaikovsky’s phenomenal ability to express the profundities of human emotion through tone colour, melody, and dynamics, but also the fantastic acoustics of the still relatively new Maison Symphonique (the OSM moved into its new home in September 2011). Every sound comes alive, every nuance shines. If you live in Montreal and haven’t yet experienced the new hall, run, don’t walk, to the next concert (if you can find one that’s not sold out).

Under Rozhdestvensky’s direction – admittedly less minimalistic than when I last saw him conduct many years ago – the spritely winds in the vivace second movement bring waterfall and fairy to life, and likewise the exquisite pizzicato string passage at the end of the same movement takes them back to the land of the imagination. The third, pastoral movement is arguably the least interesting, but of course rural scenes merely provide temporary distraction from the inevitable return of yet more suffering. The tolling bells in this movement remind us that where Romantic lovesickness is concerned, you can run, but you can’t hide.

The fourth movement is a tour de force of orchestral virtuosity and Romantic excess, featuring some very impressive brass playing, a fugue, an Eastern-sounding march, and a part for harmonium towards the end. It would have been wonderful to hear that part played on the hall’s stunning organ, which will only be inaugurated in May 2014.

I confess that it’s difficult to hear Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with fresh ears – a more overplayed piece of music is hard to come by. Which is ironic, considering that it was thought to be unplayable by Tchaikovsky’s contemporary Nicolai Rubinstein. History has certainly proven him wrong, perhaps a few too many times. In any case, in the capable hands of pianist Viktoria Postnikova, the many ridiculously difficult passages sound effortless.

One of the challenges in any Romantic concerto lies in making sure that the solo instrument is heard over the massive sound of the full orchestra. Despite the strength of Postnikova’s playing, during fortissimo passages the piano sounded somewhat muddy and was often overpowered by the orchestra. On the other hand, during quieter passages, the musicality of her playing, the complete control and mastery of her touch, the sheer sparkle of the sound, shone through. Especially stunning was the cadenza in the first movement (during which of course there was no orchestral part to compete with), with its tinkling bell-like runs. And when the orchestra quietly joined back in at the end of the cadenza and transitioned to the final section of the movement: pure magic.

The second movement had some magical moments as well, for instance the opening flute solo over pizzicato strings, as well as the first piano solo, which itself sounded flute-like in its clarity. The third movement began after the briefest of pauses, its rousing rhythmic virtuosity inviting many a swaying head in the audience and an immediate standing ovation at the end.