Tchaikovsky 1; Brahms 1

Dedicated to flautist and piccolo player David Prescott, who died in January, Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s Orchestral Concert at St Stephen’s Church, conducted by Matthew Willis, featured the two First Symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Brahms.

The unusual layout of the orchestra, bringing the strings out into the body of the Church from the chancel, with cellos and basses behind the upper strings, resulted in a well-balanced sound, appreciated by a large, enthusiastic audience.

Shivering, strings evoked an icy feel, suited to the nickname Winter Daydreams given to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony in G minor; but after a melody played gloriously by flute and bassoon, we were soon off on a thrilling troika ride over the snow.  Rich orchestral textures, confident clarinet and lovely woodwind and brass ensemble ensured a pleasing first movement, although the music is always underpinned by a slightly malevolent bass figure. The ever-widening intervals played by the cello section were perfectly executed.

The second movement is the ‘comfort food’  of the symphony:  beautifully crafted melodies, sumptuous warm string sound and outstanding playing from the woodwind section suggesting birdsong, perhaps looking ahead poignantly to spring.   The following Scherzo is full of good tunes, with Tchaikovsky honing his later genius for ballet music and already demonstrating his use of native Russian folk song.  A graceful cello solo leads towards a witty ending of this movement.

The melancholy of the ‘andante lugubre’ opening to the Finale is banished with a gear change into a brilliant but tricky fugue.  The accelerando into the allegro maestoso was well-managed and brought the Symphony to a dramatic close.

In contrast to the youthful Tchaikovsky, Brahms was in his forties when his first Symphony was performed, after struggling to complete it over twenty years.  Mindful of Beethoven’s towering legacy: ‘that giant whose steps I always hear behind me’, Brahms incorporated many of Beethoven’s fingerprints, especially in the Fourth Movement.  Conductor Hans von Bülow acclaimed it as ‘Beethoven’s 10th’.  Matthew Willis brought a Germanic, solid beat to the dramatic first movement, giving it a big, confident sound, with effective pizzicato from the cellos and basses.  The two middle movements are light relief in contrast, and the Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra featured some wonderfully song-like playing from solo oboe, clarinet, horn and violin in the second.  The sunny third movement is upbeat, until the dark subdued coda.

Following the C minor introduction to the Finale, with descending notes in the basses and expectant pizzicato strings, the change to the major mode gave the splendid horn section the chance to usher in the glorious melody which permeates the remainder of the Symphony.  This fourth movement could be described as a cross between Beethoven’s 9th Finale and Brahms’s own Gaudeamus igitur. Matthew Willis drove his forces on to the triumphant conclusion of the work with dynamic and resolute direction.

Ruth Langridge