Relishing a Golden Decade of Russian Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky,  Borodin: Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra / David Curtis (conductor), Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 8.2.2014. (RJ)

Tamsin Waley-Cohen
Tamsin Waley-Cohen


Tchaikovsky: Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet
Violin Concerto in D major
Borodin: Symphony No 2 in B minor

I have to admit to being something of a Romantic, particularly as far as Russian music is concerned, and to hear three master-works from the great age of Russian Romantic music was a special treat.

Tchaikovsky composed his Fantasy Overture in 1870 and subjected it to considerable revision over the decade. The result is a carefully worked out series of wonderful themes cast within a disciplined symphonic framework. Conductor David Curtis, who clearly cherishes the work, offered a helpful illustrated introduction to it pointing out its subtleties, before translating his instincts for the music into a mesmerising performance.

The chorale-like Friar Lawrence theme sounded more Russian Orthodox than Catholic but the swashbuckling turbulence when the Montagues and Capulets burst upon the scene could have represented a conflict anywhere, and was handled with verve and nail biting precision. An oboe passage followed by gentle string playing introduced us to the “star-crossed lovers” allowing self-confessed romantics to bask in waves of emotion for a while until a storm of violence returned which not even the saintly friar could hold at bay. Not all the players in the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra are full time professional musicians, but one would not have suspected it given the fire, passion – plus an engaging tenderness –  they brought to this terrific music.

But David Curtis has mastered the art of coaxing the best out of people – not least the violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, and I arrived full of expectation for their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. After a gentle orchestral introduction Tamsin burst on to the scene and introduced the tender opening theme with expression and assurance. As the movement progressed the violin playing became ever more daring decorating the theme with a shimmering display of arabesques and runs to culminate in a cadenza that combined expression and high-octane technique so thrillingly. In the wistful Canzonetta the violin melody emerged, as it were, from the mists to exquisite effect with a carefully judged accompaniment from the orchestra, moving without a break into the concluding Trepak. Here Tamsin tantalisingly took her time to gain speed, but when she did so she produced a performance that was fast, brilliant and effortless, and energised the orchestra. Later the tempo slowed for a blissfully tender passage in which the violin died down to a whisper before building up to an exciting climax.

This is not the first rave review I have penned of Curtis and Waley-Cohen, so cynics might accuse me of backhanders, which I hotly deny. The fact is the two are a class act and music lovers should be queuing up to hear their live concerts and buy their recordings.

It was an excellent idea to leave the Borodin until last, for behind its entrancing folk melodies the Symphony (composed in 1878) has a much craggier Russian feel. The dance-like scherzo with its fluttering brass accompaniment was impressive, as was the slow movement with its heavenly harp-flute introduction, later taken up by the woodwind, which conjured up a feeling of times past. The percussion were out in force for the fast-paced fiery finale which sounded authentically Polovtsian. Need I say more?

Roger Jones