In this instalment of its “Tchaikovsky Marathon” – a week of concerts featuring all of the composer’s symphonies and concertos plus a number of other orchestral works, Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra featured the Third Symphony and the Third Piano Concerto – two works that show up on concert programs only occasionally.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in E flat major is nearly the last piece he composed, and it didn’t even begin its life as a concerto. Its single movement’s rather undistinguished piano solo part has relegated the piece to near-obscurity. (Maestro Vänskä and pianist Adam Neiman elected not to present the two additional movements, completed by Sergey Taneyev, that are sometimes appended to turn the piece into a full-length concerto.)

But even “lesser Tchaikovsky” is interesting to hear. Neiman’s approach was both athletic and lyrical. The pianist has a sweet tone which shone through – whenever the piano could be heard. Unfortunately, there were a few too many places where the orchestra’s sound swamped the piano. Part of the blame rests with Tchaikovsky’s score, which favors the middle range of the piano.

As for the extensive cadenza in the center of the concerto, it isn’t one of the composer’s most inspired passages, but Neiman tackled it with great skill, making it the most impressive part of today’s performance. Not to minimize the orchestras contribution, beginning with the two bassoons that opened the piece, the Minneapolis players provided rich support – important in a concerto where the orchestra has as much to do as the pianist.

In a somewhat novel programming move, Vänskä chose to present the “big” work first on the program. The Symphony no. 3 in D major was given the nickname “Polish” by an eager impresario when it received its first British performance in 1889. It’s true that the final movement is marked “tempo di polacca,” but that’s about the extent of anything “Polish” in the symphony. It’s probably the least performed of the composer’s symphonies – although surprisingly, it was less than a year ago that Sir Andrew Litton led the Minnesota Orchestra in another performance of this work; that frequency may be a record in North America.

Personally, I love this symphony. It proves beyond any doubt that Tchaikovsky could write in a highly structured symphonic form – and with an additional movement thrown in for good measure. It’s also striking how balletic the music sounds. The fact that the symphony was composed at nearly the same time as Swan Lake may give us clues as to what was going on in Tchaikovsky’s head when he created it.

In today’s performance, the opening movement began pensively enough, but soon blossomed into the main Allegro section which Vänskä led at a brisk tempo. The conductor made the “extra” movement (alla tedesca) sound like something ripped from one of Tchaikovsky’s ballets or orchestral suites. Woodwind passages were fleet, including noteworthy contributions by the clarinet and bassoon, and the supporting strings really emphasized the rhythmic underpinnings of the waltz-like theme. How many people hear the similarities between this movement and the waltz movement in Tchaikovky’s Fifth Symphony? In this performance, the resemblances were unmistakable.

Woodwinds also had prominence in the Andante that followed, beginning with a rapturous flute solo, but soon transitioning to gorgeous string passages of unadorned romanticism – as passionate as anything Tchaikovsky ever penned. In the Scherzo, Vänskä and the Minneapolis players were fleet-footed, tossing off the musical phrases with a flippancy that hardly gave the ears a chance to keep up.

The Finale brought forth that polonaise dance form punctuated by stentorian brass, with variations that followed one after the other – and then building to an electrifying end with incessant timpani beats. To my mind, only the Fourth Symphony matches Tchaikovsky’s Third in its thrilling conclusion, and the orchestra delivered all of that excitement in spades. One final observation – and it’s about the Minneapolis horns. They’re uncommonly good – both in solo passages and playing as an ensemble.

Following the intermission was music that definitely qualifies as “greatest hits” material. Vänskä led a set of eight excerpts drawn from all four acts of Swan Lake. And a slick presentation it was – hardly one of nuance, but terrifically exciting. In the opening scene taken from Act 1, I couldn’t help but think of Antal Doráti’s celebrated recording of the complete ballet with this same orchestra. Vänskä seemed to be channeling the very same spirit of exuberance from 60+ years ago.

Hearing these Swan Lake excerpts alongside the Third Symphony was a good reminder that the difference in quality between familiar and rare Tchaikovsky is nothing really. Indeed, this week's Minnesota Orchestra performances reaffirm that “musical genius” colored nearly everything Tchaikovsky created.