Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian"

Orchestra London: Ovation Series

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Orchestra London: Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian"

A Russian Evening with a Russian Flavour

by Brian Hay

The "Classical" Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev could easily be called the "Playful" Symphony. The airy segments of the music conjured images such as children playing and sprites dancing. Weightier moments (the crescendos) could have been from beasts of the woods roaring in mock anger the way children will when they play those roles. It was a lot of fun to listen to. And it was a demanding piece for the orchestra to play. Key changes were a constant, as were variations in tempo. Abrupt transitions in styles of play were a constant. They were loud. They were soft. There was a lot of pizzicato playing for all the string players. It was a challenge and they rose to it beautifully.

The "Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky for String Orchestra" by Anton Arensky sounded both Russian and like something Tchaikovsky might have written right from the outset. The tone of the opening poco (little adagio or small slow movement) was deliciously lovely. The rendition the string section of the orchestra gave to this piece was gorgeous. Their work on the first, third and fourth of the seven variations was absolutely ravishing. The balance maintained between the pizzicato playing (plucking strings) and conventional bowing that divided the violins and the bass sections throughout much of the piece was a thing to behold. The music itself was sombre and often reflective but never projected a sense of gloom. It was a great way to close the first half.

The rendition given to Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony (or "Little Russian" as it's known now) was anything but little. It was spirited. It was raged with unbridled emotions. The tempos were flexible. The quiet segments were played softly and with great subtlety. Often, they were sombre. At times they were transcendently light. The brass jumped in and roared. The percussion seemed to blast its way into the structure. The crescendos were whipped into a fired moments of impassioned frenzy. It was grand. It was heroic. It was an exciting performance and it had a feel to it that was distinctly Russian in character.

Prior to the thawing of relations between the East and the West the playing of Russian orchestras had a character that was singularly their own. One recording of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony by the Leningrad Philharmonic working under the baton of Evgeny Mravinsky, reveals playing that placed a huge emphasis on the dynamics of the score. The bass lines had immense weight. The brass was harsh and Mravinsky took a free license with the tempos. Quiet segments were played softly but with an underlying tone that was almost threatening. The playing of the crescendos was monumental in its scope. The players of Orchestra London, under the baton of Guest Conductor Alain Trudel, brought these qualities to the performance and they did so in a way that made them their own. They definitely brought the excitement along. To say this performance was inspired would be an understatement. The members of this orchestra wore their hearts on their sleeves for this one. The result was music played with emotion that was primal.

It was an excellent concert and a perfect fit for a February evening when people need to shake the gloom of what's generally a dreary month.

This performance took place at Centennial Hall in London, Ontario at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday February 20, 2010.

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Photo by Alfred Fedecki, March 1893

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