It’s easy to project Tchaikovsky’s biography onto interpretations of his music – the tortured soul, the disastrous marriage, the desperation to bury his homosexuality. It was a life dogged by doubt and despair, but should it permeate every score? Not if you’re Krzysztof Urbański. The Polish conductor gave remarkably clean performances of three Tchaikovsky works with the excellent Orchestra della Svizzera italiana in Lugano which confounded expectations and, sometimes, lowered the blood pressure.

Krzysztof Urbański
© Luca Sangiorgi

Since live-streamed concerts proliferated during lockdown last year, some conductors have become ubiquitous on our screens: Herbert Blomstedt, at 93, is busier than most conductors half his age; Simon Rattle shuttles between the LSO and his soon-to-be charges, the Bavarian RSO; and at one point Zubin Mehta seemed to have his very own travel corridor between Munich and Milan. But this is the first time we’ve listed an Urbański live stream.

He cuts a dashing figure, his slick, angular beat matching his sharp suit. But his conducting isn’t full of “look at me” histrionics. It’s tidy and efficient. The OSI fielded a small string section – just four double basses – and its leanness of sound suited Urbański’s approach. The love theme in the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet emerged with chamber-like tenderness, woodwinds billing and cooing behind their plexiglass shields. But passions need to stir more in this most tragic of love stories, as they do in the Fourth Symphony, whose opening fanfare depicts, in Tchaikovsky’s own words, “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness... There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain.” Music as autobiography? It’s hard to escape here.

Krzysztof Urbański and the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana
© Luca Sangiorgi

From the excellent horn section, firm in that opening “Fate” motif, this was an immaculate, anaemic Fourth, cool and well-behaved. Urbański built a convincing first movement climax, a little reined in, and kept the Andantino on the move. The Scherzo was not exactly light on its feet, pizzicato strings plodding their way gingerly around the eggshells. The rousing finale was better, with incisive brass and a nice crescendo in the closing bars, but one wished Urbański would have let the orchestra off the leash more. Or perhaps I just prefer more nervous hysteria in my Tchaikovsky...

Pablo Ferrández
© Luca Sangiorgi

Urbański’s lean, unsentimental approach best suited the middle work of the evening, the Rococo Variations, which featured Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández as the stylish soloist. Tchaikovsky revered Mozart above all other composers and this performance was full of classical grace. With his slightly parched tone, Ferrández elegantly negotiated each variation – impish in Variation 4, nostalgic in Variation 6 where he trailed off into a whisper, echoed by the woodwinds – Tchaikovsky in his powdered wig, without a care in the world.

This performance was reviewed from the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana's live video stream