THE magnificently verbose analytical essays of Donald Tovey, first published in the 1930s, suggest that Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is the “most famous of all his works”. Later, in the same essay, the musicologist suggests that it is also the “most dramatic” of all his works.
Audiences could argue over this for ever. Quite whether it is more famous than Swan Lake or the Nutcracker or more dramatic than the Fourth Symphony or parts of the opera Eugene Onegin are moot points.
But Tovey is probably right when he talks about drama, especially in the final movement where traditional sonata form is jettisoned for a highly personal statement often regarded as a suicide note on the part of the composer. Days after the premiere, Tchaikovsky was dead and the conspiracy theorists have barely stopped since. Did he take his own life? Was it the result of a gay affair with nobility, even royalty?
What conductor Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra presented was a tense, precise performance.
There was distinct restlessness at the outset, the crescendo building almost imperceptibly up to the powerful, crashing development. A fine brass chorus in this part of the movement led back almost into abject despair, with every last ounce of emotion squeezed out in this performance.
The two inner movements are certainly lighter with something of the familiar Tchaikovsky humour. Quite what the composer was thinking when he wrote the waltz in 5/4 time will never be known, though it’s easy to imagine a tangled heap of ballgowns on the floor as dancers trip over the rare, if not impossible to dance to, rhythm.
A magnificently lively, almost nervous third movement led into the pathos of the finale. Here, once again, Petrenko carefully controlled the orchestra, looking for every ounce of emotion.
Sibelius’s Violin Concerto has a quite unconventional opening – feeling pained, challenged, even.
Soloist Jack Liebeck, making a welcome return to Liverpool, was impressive. The opening movement was full of impassioned playing, a sense of longing never far away, and boundless resources of energy always there.
The adagio was no less impassioned with dynamic chromatic rises adding drama with that hint Wagner, especially in the harmonic language. Liebeck produced a fine allegro finale, a moto perpetuo where that energetic drive was always evident.
His encore – the sarabande from Bach’s Second Partita for solo violin in D minor – was a sombre affair, bringing the burst of Finnish energy to a juddering halt, but none the less inviting for that.
The concert opened with the refined classical lines of what is known as the Holberg Suite by Grieg but more correctly entitled From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style. The spiky rhythms of the prelude melted into a charged sarabande, a breathless gavotte and musette and a gloriously intense air – surely the centre point of this fine performance by the RLPO strings.