Thrilling Tchaikovsky Performances from Augustin Hadelich and Vasily Petrenko

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky: Augustin Hadelich (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra /Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.2.2016. (CS)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Manfred Symphony

How do you combine almost supra-human precision with intensely human sensitivity?  Anyone in search of an answer might well consider asking the German-born, America-based violinist Augustin Hadelich, whose inspiring performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto at the Festival Hall, with the London Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko, was a perfect fusion of flawlessness and feeling.

A few days ago, Hadelich won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for his recording of Dutilleux’s Violin Concerto, L’Arbre Des Songes, with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Ludovic Morlot.  Here, he was on ground that is more familiar to audiences.  But, while this concerto may be a proverbial ‘war horse’, Hadelich’s unassuming, relaxed approach diminished the impression of struggle-and-conquest that a soloist more inclined to effusive and emotive gesture may convey.  In place of barn-storming heroism we had relaxed refinement, with even the most virtuosic passages rendered with pristine clarity and purity.  Some may have found the interpretation lacking a necessary touch of Romantic indulgence, impetuosity and swagger; but to my ears, Hadelich’s unfussy manner did not diminish the expressive richness, and like a master painter the violinist applied a wide range of colours.

The players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra were responsive partners, and their alertness to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of Hadelich’s interpretation were in no small part a result of Petrenko’s technique, which combined flexibility with clarity, and his responsiveness to – indeed, his seemingly innate empathy with – Hadelich’s expressive means and meaning.  The violinist’s tone is warm though not heavy but, without any obvious sign that Petrenko was asking his instrumentalists for restraint, the violinist spoke clearly at all times, partly because of the focus of his projection but also because of the orchestra’s sensitivity.

The opening orchestral bars of the Allegro moderato were almost Classical in elegance, but such grace was immediately swept aside by the burning crescendo driven by the cellos’ repeating quavers which provided a fierce injection of Romantic passion that seeped into the violin’s first rhapsodic climb and first theme.  At the premiere of the concerto in Vienna in 1881, Eduard Hanslick noted that Adolph Brodsky’s ‘violin was not played but beaten black and blue’; Hadelich, in contrast, caressed and coaxed his 1723 Ex-Kiesewetter Stradivarius to exquisite utterance, showing exhaustive knowledge of his instrument and producing a stream of beautiful melody.  The fiercest of double-stopped passages were unfailingly mellifluous, and the woodwind responded in kind, their melodies engaging in an alluring dialogue with the soloist.  After a breathtakingly precise cadenza, Petrenko reintroduced the orchestra at a pace slightly slower than the score’s a tempo instruction, the subsequent accelerando effectively propelling the movement towards its close.

The song-like beauty and focus of Hadelich’s tone are perfect for Tchaikovsky’s Canzonetta.  The tempo was not self-indulgent, and if the solo line might have wallowed in a little more Slavic soulfulness, the woodwind were happy to oblige, often entering into the circle of the soloist’s spotlight while the strings offered sensitive pizzicato support.  The Finale was stunningly self-assured, even more so given the whirlwind pace – vivacissimissimo? – and the LPO matched Hadelich for discipline and exactitude.  Hanslick complained that the ‘odorously Russian’ second theme reminded him of wretched Russian holidays and the smell of vodka but surely even he would not have found Hadelich’s tuneful richness unpalatable.  The violinist showed us that this work does not need inflated emotional heft; unforced lyricism will suffice.  The Andante of J.S. Bach’s Sonata for solo violin in A minor provided further evidence of Hadelich’s unassuming thoughtfulness.

Vasily Petrenko was happy to indulge – and vigorously laud – his soloist, but his own interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony revealed his own instincts and affinities.   Petrenko won a Gramophone Award for his 2008 recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and this performance confirmed that this is a work which has diffused into his innermost being.  He gathered up the details of the sprawling score and assimilated them into a compelling dramatic narrative, sweeping through the monumental work with confidence and unflagging vigour.  Not a single ‘particular’ was neglected, but more importantly they were made to cohere into climaxes of compelling intensity.  Here was anger, contempt, guilt, despair: an introspective loathing turned inside out and hurled at an unforgiving world.

Tormented, as so often in his life by a lack of creative confidence, in 1884 Tchaikovsky allowed himself to be persuaded by Balakirev to write a programmatic symphony based on an adaptation of Byron’s Manfred which had been prepared many years before by the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov (the latter had been inspired by performances of Harold in Italy which Berlioz had conducted during a tour of Russian in 1867-68).  Manfred is a nobleman living in the Alps; he is plagued by a guilt which remains unexplained but which involves his dead beloved, Astarte.  Seeking an escape in oblivion, he wanders between his castle and the Alpine mountains, encountering several people who try to assist him.  Manfred uses his supernatural powers to summon seven spirits, commanding them to ease his pain with forgetfulness.  When Astarte finally appears to him again, she withholds forgiveness and predicts that his earthly torment will soon come to an end.  Manfred returns to his castle but his peace is short-lived: refusing the comforts proffered by the Abbot who visits him, he dies defiant.

Hero or anti-hero, Byron’s protagonist is a vessel of extremes: good and evil, mortal and supernatural, responsibility and recklessness.  Petrenko made much of the lurching changes of timbre and dynamics; such contrasts became conflicts, and suggested inner turmoil as much as a journey through an outward terrain.  The strings surged, stabbed – the violas played with ferocious intensity – then sweetly reminisced, creating an achingly tender portrait of Manfred’s former love.  The lower woodwind cast dark gothic shadows; brass and horns – playing with pin-point intonation – snarled, rebuked and challenged.  The score’s inventive percussive gestures were foregrounded.  When the full forces of the LPO were amassed, as in the concluding section of the first movement, the onslaught of sound was terrifying.

The contrasts were structural too, and provided jolting emotional surprises, as in the first movement where the anguish was suddenly, if temporarily, assuaged by the delicate clarinet theme nestling on a bed of muted string tremolo – a vision of love, distant yet real.  The delicacies of the second movement were made bright, and the complicated interplay of parts was threaded together into a dancing continuity.  As Manfred strode among the Alpine hunters in the Andante, the pastoral warmth of the rich string sound was tinged with occasional unrest, enhanced by the urgent accelerations and lulls.

Such was the huge energy that Petrenko committed to this performance that in the Finale he seemed at times to be conducting with his shoulders and whole torso, while using both hands to fling out multiple cues; the orchestral forces seemed driven by his dynamism, yet while they charged through this twenty-minute movement Petrenko kept an iron grip on proceedings.  The thundering entry of the Festival Hall organ signalled Manfred’s ultimate, and destructive, defiance; but also his undeniable grandeur of spirit.

Claire Seymour

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