Constantin Trinks leads the VSO in Humperdinck and Tchaikovsky for the Christmas season

CanadaCanada Humperdinck, Tchaikovsky: Kallie Claxton and Barb Towell (sopranos), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Constantin Trinks (conductor). Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 7.12.2019. (GN)

Constantin Trinks © Marco Borggreve

Humperdinck – Excerpts from Hansel and Gretel

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64

Young German conductor Constantin Trinks made a great impression in his previous two visits with the VSO, coaxing the orchestra to play with unusual cohesion, attack and dramatic range (review, review). His current concert – conceived as a European Christmas celebration – was no exception. Excerpts from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel featured an orchestral contribution full of warmth and spirit and effective vocal contributions from the two sopranos. Tchaikovsky’s Christmas contribution is perennially The Nutcracker, but here the composer’s more somber Fifth Symphony got the nod. It received a refreshingly ‘classical’ reading, finely appointed and powerful, though perhaps light on Tchaikovskian fragrance.

Trinks is an accomplished Wagnerian, so it’s not surprising that he was at home in the undulating textures of the Prelude to Hansel and Gretel, letting the big climaxes expand naturally out of the texture. The flexibility and dynamic control of the orchestra was special, and the strings showed both pliability and luster though the horns might have had a richer glow. The Witch’s Ride had colour, rhythmic precision and plenty of power, while the Dream Pantomime featured wonderfully refined string textures. Sopranos Kallie Claxton and Barb Towell took on the vocal numbers, bringing a good portion of the childish innocence required, though the orchestral balance was slightly against them. The opening ‘Suse, liebe Suse’ seemed on the timid side, but the singing warmed up markedly by the Ginger Crackle Waltz.  All of this was delightful: the music should create a spell, and so it did.

The conductor has led only Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies thus far in his career, and his performance here of the latter likely captures a formative stage in his development. It was pretty impressive: better thought-out than many we hear, distinguished by a fine sense of cohesion and with plenty of excitement. It was also notably leaner than customary readings while conscientious in matters of structure and instrumental balance. In the sombre opening of the work, it was precision and classical restraint that stood out: there was little lingering in the mists. The transition into the Allegro was nicely judged, and one noted the maestro’s care in making sure the violins finished their phrases exactly. Wind volumes were closely observed but still cultivated a degree of frothy delight. Aided by an imperceptible accelerando, the climaxes came forth in waves of spontaneous power. I liked the sculpted quality of this approach and its pacing; while Trinks did not forego the work’s lyricism, it made me more aware of the first movement’s architecture. At the same time, there was a certain uniformity in how the climaxes were executed, and the later climaxes might have been given more gravity and weight than the earlier ones. I did not get the feeling that the screws were being tightened to a different level as we approached the movement’s end.

The Andante was finer still, finding the type of inexorability this movement must have. In spite of a somewhat emaciated tone in the famous horn theme (and a few horn smudges thereafter), textures were set in place transparently. The climax of the movement had remarkable power, the violins pouring their hearts into their aching string tune. But the skill in coming down from this peak was as impressive. I have rarely heard the end of this movement developed with as much concentration.

The long finale certainly got top marks for clarity and cohesion but, taken at a quick speed, this was less convincing overall: its projection seemed too purposive and emotionally uniform. Though the orchestra had a wonderfully athletic time of it, one missed Tchaikovsky’s angst, his emotional peaks and valleys and his sheer determination. There were stark dramatic contrasts (one of which fooled the audience into applause), many strong climaxes (especially at the end) and some interesting moments of tenderness in the strings, but there still was not enough sense of deliberation or burdened tread. This was not a performance where one felt that the music had to push through definite obstacles to achieve its heroic glory. It is therapeutic to hear this movement less entwined with the narrative of struggle to triumph and more clean-cut overall, but one downside is that the composer’s repetition and (sometimes) undistinguished counterpoint become more noticeable.

This performance was very promising. There are many good things about Trinks’s refreshing and individual Tchaikovsky, and he continues to challenge the orchestra in exciting ways.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

Leave a Comment