I don’t see why a composer who is already ubiquitous on concert programs needs a mini-festival, but the National Symphony Orchestra apparently does.
The second of the NSO’s two all-Tchaikovsky weeks (the Fifth Symphony will be heard next week in a mixed program) began with a rarity — “Fatum” — followed by two works that need a moratorium rather than a festival — the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony. The concerto is heard somewhere in this area once every eight months on average, and the NSO gave us the symphony just last summer. With so much worthy music almost totally unheard (by, just off the top of my head, Prokofiev, Nielsen, Bartok, and Martinu), yet another go-round on these warhorses feels vexatious.
But for those who still can’t get enough of these pieces, the performances should at least satisfy, and last night the soloist, Arabella Steinbacher, drew a standing ovation in the middle of the concerto, something I’ve never seen before.
“Fatum” had a roller-coaster beginning. After its premiere, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, “This is, I think, the best thing I have written to date — at least, so others say (a significant success).” But that was not the view of Tchaikovsky’s mentor, Mily Balakirev, to whom he dedicated the work and who conducted its second performance. Afterward, Balakirev did not varnish his thoughts in a letter to the composer: “It is not properly gestated, and seems to have been written in a very slapdash manner. The seams show, as does all your clumsy stitching. Above all, the form itself just does not work.”
Tchaikovsky subsequently destroyed the score, but it was reconstructed from a set of orchestra parts after his death. I agree with Tchaikovsky’s self-assessment. It was true at the time, simply because it is one of his earliest works. All of the masterpieces by which he is known were yet to come.
But it has all the elements that he would manipulate with such mastery later on: a brooding five-note motto that is heard in many different guises; long, yearning paragraphs of melody, obsessively repeating figures; and vigorous battle music, presaging “Romeo and Juliet.” The seams do show, but that’s not a criticism. The piece has its own structure, with attractive melodic material, and certainly deserves to be heard more often. NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach played up the drama but couldn’t do much with the clunky ending.
In the concerto, Steinbacher eschewed the muscular approach others take. In the first movement, she played almost tenderly, doing her best to make even the most gnarly passagework sound musical. This often came at the expense of forward impetus, and the performance almost got stuck in a ditch once or twice. But after a relatively bland canzonetta, she kicked up her heels in the finale, gamboling through the virtuoso licks and getting down and dirty in the peasant dance sections. Intonation was good, though not flawless (some double-stops were iffy and there were two unfortunate artificial harmonics in the cadenza). This was not the most organic performance I’ve heard, but it was quite enjoyable on its own terms. Kudos to the NSO’s assistant principal winds in this work; the B team gave A-quality performances.
Eschenbach is better at big-picture stuff than accuracy of detail, and in the Fourth Symphony, he wielded good control, building the long arc of music logically and inexorably. He was patient in transitions and didn’t try to make something happen when nothing was intended. In the third movement, he let the strings play the reprise of their pizzicato passage without conducting at all; always nice to see.
The finale had lower voltage than I might have expected, but the playing was clean and expressive. Although the NSO’s perennial problem of overbearing brass and percussion spoiled many passages, the strings still dug in, doing their best under the circumstances. Tchaikovsky gives good value, time after time. But let’s give him a rest after all this, okay?
The performance will be repeated Friday and Saturday.
Battey is a freelance writer.