How opinions change over the years! The influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick – capable  of destroying reputations with a flick of his wrist – stated that in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto the instrument “is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed.” As if that were not enough, he fired a parting shot: “There can be music that stinks to the ear.” I doubt whether anybody in the audience for Augustin Hadelich’s performance of the work with the LPO conducted by Vasily Petrenko would have understood where those comments were coming from.

Augustin Hadelich © Rosalie O'Connor
Augustin Hadelich
© Rosalie O'Connor

Technically there was little to criticise, with secure intonation, clean articulation and carefully calibrated dynamics. Yet although the soloist’s first entry was promisingly sensuous and languorous (and in the finale he repeatedly lingered over individual phrases), it soon became apparent through the over-careful phrasing and lack of expressive colouring that this was destined to become a small-scale account, with the narrative voice stuck in the ballad mode rather than attempting the scaling of any heroic heights. For example, the Cossack-like tune in the finale, harking back to the composer’s “Little Russian” Symphony, had little sense of abandon, the pot never quite coming to the boil but merely simmering along. Excessive sentiment does Tchaikovsky no favours at all, but a degree of ardour and passion is an inherent part of his musical make-up. At least conductor and soloist were at one in the way they approached the concerto, Petrenko refusing to force the pace in the accompaniment, and choosing instead to savour the many fine opportunities for interplay between wind and strings. Indeed, most of the beguiling sounds in the concerto came from the distinguished wind soloists. As an encore, Hadelich offered the Andante from Bach’s Sonata no. 2 in A minor BWV 1003.

A favourite scholarship Literature question in my time was: “What makes a tragic hero?”. Smart students were expected, then as now, to come up with an examination of the fatal character flaw which leads to the downfall of the heroic figure. Tchaikovsky, notoriously introspective and self-critical, would have seen parallels between Byron’s Manfred and his own tortured existence when he decided to take up the challenge of writing a programmatic symphony based on the outlines of Byron’s verse-drama. But there is also a mirroring of the two creative lives: the Swiss Alps are not only the place where Manfred seeks to assuage his guilt, they were the refuge for Byron following his ostracisation from London society and also for Tchaikovsky after his failed marriage and ensuing breakdown. It was actually the Violin Concerto, written at high speed some years earlier during his dalliance with the violinist Josif Kotek (originally intended to be the dedicatee), which can lay claim to being the beneficiary of this particular Swiss Connection.

It took only a few minutes, initiated by a baleful bassoon solo and fairly brisk stabbing phrases (thoughts of Psycho were difficult to dispel) from the lower strings, for Petrenko to establish the heroic credentials of this largest of all Tchaikovsky’s symphonic creations. Eschewing lugubriousness, Petrenko picked out individual tragedy-laden threads – the dark menace present in the trombones, a snarling figuration in the violas – before whipping up the emotional temperature. The collective sound then became a seething cauldron, the sinews of the LPO stretched almost to breaking-point, giving us an intensity that had been missing earlier in the concerto. Petrenko is a conductor who knows exactly what he wants and has both the technical and expressive means to obtain the strongest contrasts within such a vast work. After these torrents of sound Tchaikovsky writes one of his most tender and heartfelt melodies to describe Manfred’s erstwhile and discarded lover Astarte, here played impeccably by the LPO strings.

Such strong contrasts also characterised the two inner movements, from the will-o’-the-wisp beginning of the scherzo, with a neat dovetailing of string and wind lines - mellifluous clarinets and plangent oboes especially fine – to the grand sweep of the alpine vistas glimpsed in the pastoral Andante where the ensemble positively shone. With echoes of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique here and elsewhere, it would not be wide of the mark to call Tchaikovsky’s Manfred his own fantastic symphony, since it employs an idée fixe associated with the hero together with several instances of musical phantasmagoria – such as tubular bells (sadly, not a proper Russian-sounding bell, although thankfully we were spared a harmonium in the finale and had the full RFH organ instead) and two harps – to charm the ear.

So where is the tragic flaw in this composer’s heroic symphony? Even Petrenko could not disguise the lack of compelling inventiveness in the finale, where academic-sounding fugal passages and the recycling of previous material rather than thematic regeneration are the order of the day. To put it quite simply: here there are no real killer blows.