Authenticity Mixes with Opulence in an All-Tchaikovsky Programme

CanadaCanada Tchaikovsky: Johannes Moser (cello), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 28.5.2016. (GN)

Johannes Moser (cello) with members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Tchaikovsky, Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24; Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (original version); Symphony No. 6 in B minor, ‘Pathetique’

What happened to those popular all-Tchaikovsky concerts that combined either the big piano concerto or violin concerto with one of the last three symphonies? A half century ago, they were everywhere; now, they appear to have been diffused by the quest for greater diversity. We did not get either of the famous concertos here, but it was refreshing to have the charming Rococo Variations for cello instead, preceded by the bracingly-attractive Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, with the ‘Pathetique’ Symphony summing everything up. This may appear to be an uncontroversial pairing of works, yet it had its intrigue. The novelty connected with the Rococo Variations was that that cellist Johannes Moser presented the work in its ‘original’ edition, free of the ‘improvements’ originally bestowed upon it by its dedicatee, Wilhelm Fitzhagen. The fascination connected with the ‘Pathetique’ concerns Maestro Bramwell Tovey’s massive change in interpretation from his last performance of this symphony in 2010. At that time, we received one of the most Spartan, ‘lean beef’ interpretations that one could imagine; now the interpretation is warm, shaped and almost cinematic in its colour and texture – quite a different animal.

The ‘original’ version of the Rococo Variations was actually premiered in Moscow in 1941, and Steven Isserlis, Raphael Wallfisch and Julian Lloyd Webber have been its chief promoters in recent times. Fitzhamer’s original re-workings were consciously designed to get a more overwhelming audience response and involved changing the order of the variations, excising Variation VIII entirely. Also implied was some re-working of the transitions, especially in the joining of Variations II and V. Fitzhamer was undoubtedly successful. When Liszt first heard the cellist perform the work in 1879 he said, “You carried me away! You played splendidly.… Now there, at last, is real music!”

I enjoyed this performance by the young and talented Johannes Moser. In its authentic form, the work maintains its elegance but seems to gain a degree of complexity too. The first five variations may seem slightly less straightforward, but they leave room for a greater sense of spontaneous musing. Few cellists are more exacting than Moser, and his wonderful bow control can produce the finest of shadings. This was a beautifully-sculpted reading with a lovely control of dynamics, especially in the softer passages. I would still regard it as an interpretation on the refined side: more analytical than overtly passionate, though enviably agile and pointed. If anything, Moser might have let go a little more in the effusive passages, though I may be trapped by the types of emotional emphases that the Fitzhamer version has perpetuated. The orchestra was in good form, and there was some animated interaction between the cellist and the first violins. Moser came back for a little Bach encore after this performance.

Bramwell Tovey’s ‘Pathetique’ of six years ago still lingers in the memory and might have tied in splendidly with the focus on the authentic. I commented then: “…the conductor stripped away all romantic excess, giving one of the leanest, most direct interpretations I have ever heard. With an orchestral sound smaller than normal, this sharpness of focus was sort of like hearing Tchaikovsky ‘on original instruments.’” Conductors do not often change their interpretations radically. Consider Karajan’s three recorded performances of the ‘Pathetique’ from 1963 to 1977. The interpretations are essentially the same; small differences stem as much from changes in the recording venue and company as anything else. The same could be said of Mravinsky. Maestro Tovey made a rather big switch here from the small-scale and acerbic to the more rounded, lyrically shaped and overtly ‘spectacular’. It turned out that the extension of the lyrical line was a definite plus, but the extra padding and shaping tended to undercut the sharpness and ruggedness in Tchaikovsky’s utterance. On balance, I preferred the earlier reading.

The opening movement proceeded at a deliberate pace, more architecturally sure and patient but with somewhat less frisson. Though the opening Adagio might have been considerably softer and more somber, the benefits of this approach immediately paid off with a fluid and telling presentation of the famous second subject. There was more colour throughout which yielded further benefits, though the quest for shaping and size sometimes led to results that seemed over-cultivated. The huge climax towards the end was extended fully but was almost too fulsome, taking me away from the raw iron in the composer and closer to the warmer and more shaped cinematics of Mahler and Richard Strauss. The sound was glowing and gorgeous – but how close was it to the composer’s own hysteric emotions?

The padding and warmth did not help the following waltz movement, which should always conjure up some tinge of melancholy and emotional fragility. It is a ‘sad waltz’ indeed, but not here: it was too warm, over-adorned and assured to do its job. The great march movement went reasonably well and was the closest in tempo and fabric to the earlier performance. There might have been more exact execution in the Mendelssohn-like opening, and sometimes the inevitability of the powerful rhythms and massed brass statements later on was compromised by the conductor’s reversion to a quasi-Elgarian gait. On the other hand, perhaps the movement’s relatively sobriety was intentional. The conductor spent considerable time in his in-concert preamble suggesting that the audience should not get too carried away and start clapping at the movement’s end; it is indeed an age-old tradition to do just this. The other prong of his strategy was to start the finale attacca, so presumably no one would have time to clap. This move was a clear success: no one clapped, but it was ineffective to start the movement without pause.

It must be difficult to conduct when relatively trivial audience concerns are on one’s mind, and the closing Adagio did not bring the work’s message home very well. It is always a good idea to keep the opening strings fairly severe, icy and metallic in sheen, yielding only later when the great emotional outpouring begins. This spirit was maintained in the performance of six years ago. Here we started instead from the warmest, most luxuriant string textures one could imagine, and the fulsome flow never stopped. There was certainly a valedictory quality present but few sharp daggers to go with it, and sometimes things seemed just too overwrought and spectacular. This movement turned out as sort of a grand dirge about pain and despair – at the world level, not Tchaikovsky’s pain in particular. The seeped textures, combined with a consistent emphasis on the bottom string lines, actually took me closer to Strauss’ Metamorphosen or the finale of Mahler’s Ninth.

I’m always open to new interpretative ideas, but the test of this one is that I did not feel resolution at the end of the work; it seemed that the music should continue further. The abyss had not been reached! Evidently, while the maestro’s earlier performance took on considerably less, it was purer and came closer to unearthing the true Russian fire and feeling in this masterpiece.

Usually, Tchaikovsky concerts are wonderfully comfortable exercises in nostalgia: hearing works that you played over and over again in your youth, only to spend a good portion of your mature years trying to figure out why you liked them so much. Nonetheless, a great performance always brings you back, and performances like the current one really get you thinking again.

 Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on