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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Concert Review: The Other Side of Tchaikovsky

Week Two of Beloved Friend at the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Emotive: Semyon Bychkov conducts Tchaikovsky at Lincoln Center.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2017 The New York Philharmonic.
Upon initial examination, there appears to be little imagination or initiative in devoting three weeks of the New York Philharmonic's season to the music of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. However, thanks to some innovative performance choices and imaginative programming, the current Beloved Friend festival under the curation and baton of conductor Semyon Bychkov is proving to be something of a watershed.

Friday morning's concert (the second of three this week) featured Mr. Bychkov conducting the First Piano Concerto and the Manfred Symphony. The former is a repertory staple, although here it was heard in its less familiar 1879 revision with soloist Kirill Gerstein. The latter is a definite rarity, absent from the orchestra's repertory since it was last performed in 2007.

There is no doubt of Mr. Gerstein's technical proficiency or his fearlessness in championing this earlier and more difficult version of this famous piece. From the opening flourish to the most technically challenging solo passages (more elaborate in this earlier edition of the score) he stunned with his steely technical precision. There was a sense of desperation and drive to this performance as if the artist had something to prove to both Tchaikovsky and himself. It made for good, if taut music.

The slow movement was more lyrical, although one still had the sense of conflict between the orchestra and solo instrument. In the last movement, the solo voice of the piano is overwrought, angular and attacking the orchestra which at times is racing to keep up with the flow of ideas. This was spectacular in terms of rhythmic attack and prestidigital skill, but it was not always pleasant to listen to.

Manfred is a difficult beast, a long programmatic symphony with a storyline drawn from the writings of Lord Byron. Its concept thrust upon the reluctant Tchaikovsky by the influential Russian composer Mily Balakirev. In the wrong hands, it can sound like bad academic Wagnerism, with extended depictions of scenes from a poem long forgotten (and possibly never read) by maestros who wish to add it to their Tchaikovskyan merit badges but otherwise treat it as a large, loud afterthought.

Happily, Mr. Bychkov is a conductor conversant with Wagnerian excess as well as Tchaikovsky's own gifts for innovative ideas and sustained melodic lines. Like Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique (which served as its model) Manfred unfolds the story of Byron's unhappy hero throughthe use of leitmotiv, using short, simple themes to depict Manfred himself, his unobtainable beloved and his lengthy and heroic struggle.

The Philharmonic rose to the occasion, with bold performances from the horns and expanded brass section, ringing out the slow-fast opening movement, the covertly andante and the Bruckner-like hunting chorales of the symphony's scherzo. The most thrilling moment was the all-hell-breaks-loose climax, played as a fugue in the strings, descending stepwise with Bach-like precision. A long drawn-out coda tried the listener's patience, but even a composer at play must take the time to put his toys back in their boxes. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.