A winter afternoon of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Glazunov: Anastasia Kobekina (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Gergely Madaras (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 10.12.2019. (PCG)

GlazunovThe Seasons, Op.67: Winter

TchaikovskyVariations on a rococo theme, Op.33; Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 ‘Winter daydreams’

For many years now I have been lamenting the general reluctance of orchestras to stage performances of nineteenth-century symphonic works in the manner that the composers of these works would usually have expected: with the first violins placed to the left of the stage and mirrored by the second violins placed on the right, rather than the more modern habit of bunching all the players together on the left. Whatever may be construed from their scores about the expectations of some composers, there can be no doubt that Tchaikovsky wrote with precisely this antiphonal arrangement in mind, and he scored for example the opening bars of his final symphony in a manner that appears bizarre if the now standard disposition is followed (and thereby sacrifices the deliberate contrast later, when the scoring is more orthodox). The modern arrangement has generally been justified by the argument that it makes for a more solid and resonant string tone if the violins are situated in a single unit, and this may well be the case in some acoustics at venues visited by the touring BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Nevertheless, in the resonant Hoddinott Hall there was no appreciable diminution of the superb violin tone in this performance, where Gergely Madaras adopted the standard nineteenth century placement of the strings. The slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Winter daydreams’, one of his most luscious romantic effusions, had all the warmth and richness one could desire. And the stereophonic contrast between the violin sections in the finale produced exactly the sort of effect that Tchaikovsky clearly would have expected. Phrases in the semi-fugal development were flung around from one section to the other with absolute clarity, which only served to add to the sense of rising excitement in Tchaikovsky’s unorthodox structure (the slow introduction returning not, as expected, at the end of the development, but in the transition between first and second subjects in the recapitulation). Indeed, this was an exceptionally fine performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony. It is by no means the inexperienced work of youth it is sometimes condemned as, but it looks forward in many of its procedures to the composer’s final three great works in the genre.

Having commended the performers’ concern to realise Tchaikovsky’s intentions in the ‘Winter daydreams’, I am disappointed to note that in the performance of his Rococo Variations in the first half of this concert we had to suffer yet again the flagrant recomposition and bowdlerisation perpetrated by William Fitzenhagen, who played the cello in the first performance of the work. He sent his version of the score to the publishers without any authorisation from the author. When Tchaikovsky realised what had happened (and this only apparently came to light some ten years later, when he described Fitzenhagen as ‘an idiot’), he took the attitude ‘To hell with it!’ – presumably deterred not least by thoughts of the cost of having the piece entirely re-engraved for publication in its correct form, he acquiesced in the situation. His original thoughts were only unearthed in 1941, and not published until 1956. But that was over seventy years ago. Given the current enthusiasm for authenticity, one would have expected that the work in the version that the composer intended would by this date have thoroughly driven out of circulation that by Fitzenhagen. He not only added some virtuoso ornamentation of his own but thoroughly recast the form of the work, transferring some variations bodily from one section of the score to another; he also perpetrated wholesale deletions of passages of mature Tchaikovsky, including one whole variation and a substantial section of the finale. On the last occasion that this score was presented in this hall by this same orchestra back in 2014, I complained in my review about the use of the Fitzenhagen edition (which was then described totally inaccurately as a ‘collaboration’ between soloist and composer) as a result of ‘sheer force of habit’. I see no reason now to change my view on the subject, despite the special pleading of the programme note by Malcolm Hayes or the superb advocacy of the soloist Anastasia Kobekina. Indeed, the performance made the best possible case for the score in the version given; but at the same time, one must shed a tear for yet another missed opportunity to let us hear what the composer actually wrote.

The concert, designated as a seasonal celebration under the title of ‘Winter afternoon’, had appropriately started with a single movement from Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons. That Winter section, like much of Glazunov’s music, has an innate sense of charm without any sense of threat. The snow, ice and wind are all positively benevolent in a manner that conjures up the sense of the landscape in Mediterranean climes rather than Russian ones – as indeed may well have been the composer’s intention in a piece designed to be presented at the Tsar’s Frenchified court. The many original felicities of Glazunov’s scoring were well presented, although the brevity of some of the individual segments was emphasised by the conductor’s deliberate pauses between individual ‘variations’ (the term here designating dance sections rather than musical ones). The ending, where the full ballet score continues into the next section, was indeed so abrupt that the audience was left temporarily unsure whether to applaud or not.

But altogether this was a thoroughly enjoyable and imaginatively constructed programme, despite my misgivings about the edition of the Rococo Variations employed. The experiment with the string placing might well be repeated, at any rate in this hall, to the benefit of nineteenth-century scores. Possibly it could also be tried again for the Beethoven celebrations in St David’s Hall next January? The advantages for stereo should be clear in the broadcast; this concert, relayed live on Radio 3, will be available to home listeners on BBC Sounds for a further month.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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