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Radio: Performance on 3 / Tchaikovsky Symphony No.1 / Ulster Orchestra / Yuasa / BBC Radio 3 /

January 24, 2010

Orchestral musicians read critiques of the performances they’ve played in with interest, I understand. It’s not that they are deliberately on the look out for the bad stuff to fuel a persecution complex. Instead they’re presumably trying to gauge whether anyone in the auditorium or listening on the radio experienced the concert the same way those on the platform did.

There’ll never be agreement on the performance. There will instead be surprises.

After all, members of the Ulster Orchestra playing in BBC Radio 3’s live Performance on 3s on Friday night may have been unaware (unless they listened again via the BBC iPlayer) that Delius’ usually exquisite Walk To The Paradise Garden was more of an agonising crawl to a park long since closed to the public on Friday night. Slow and drawn out wasn’t the word. Conductor Takuo Yuasa likes this work too much.

Former Young Generation Artist soprano Elizabeth Watt made a valiant attempt in Berlioz’s Nuit D’Etes and almost certainly sounded brilliant in the Ulster Hall where she sang, but technical problems resulted in most if not all of her fortissimo sequences marred by distortion in the broadcast mix. This was a real shame. Berlioz’s work is beautiful and Watt’s voice is a joy to listen to.

Consequently, it was left to the Ulster Orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s first symphony to salvage this radio listener’s Performance on 3.

Presenter Petroc Trelawney described the Russian composer’s first foray into symphonic writing as “convincing”. If the description wasn’t mealy-mouthed, it was certainly polite.

The symphony is unfamiliar on the ear but pleasant to listen to nonetheless even if at times it illustrates the composer’s lack of ease developing thematic ideas across a symphonic movement. Was it that reason which saw the work not performed for fifteen years after it’s premiere in 1866?

Aside from some moments of mild panic during the first movement when Tchaikovsky’s trademark scurrying semi-quaver passages threatened momentary cramp in the violins, the strings of the Ulster Orchestra met the demands of the Russian composer’s orchestration pretty much effortlessly. Listen out for the moments in the first movement and the opening of the third when the string section underpins florid passages for the woodwind ensemble, something surpassed only by the celli playing the simple yet lush main theme of the second movement. A real joy to listen to.

It wasn’t until the third movement however that the Ulster Orchestra clearly showed themselves at ease with the entire work. The Scherzo moved along effortlessly swinging from one side to the next, careering inexorably towards the final chords. Nice.

If the last movement was confusing to listen the first time around this wasn’t down to the players. By the time we got to the end of the movement, the word “convincing” seemed less an attempt at politeness more inaccurate. Whilst the last movement was executed admirably by the orchestra, the music itself seems to go all over the place. (Listen to oompah-oompah bit at the end of the fugue. It’s conspicuous, almost ungainly.)

Ultimately however, the Ulster Orchestra pulled off a rare thing for me. If it’s a live broadcast I’d normally dismiss catching up on the performance if I’d missed the original transmission.

And whilst the first half may have had it’s problems, it has been the relatively unknown first symphony of Tchaikovsky’s in the second half which I’ve listened to at least four times over the past couple of days.

That is a powerful thing. Well done them.

Utter perfection in every single performance isn’t what’s important, you see. CD recordings of studio performances are as dull and uninteresting as overly-complied comedies or ready-made meals. Instead, a live broadcast (even if you’re catching up on it) provides the listener with a record of something which is real.

It’s real life which is important in performance. Real life provides a narrative. A story. It’s vital. Otherwise I’ll get someone to visit me at home and stick a CD on.

  • Hear the BBC Phharnonix on Radio 3 next Friday night for a live performance featuring Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Ravel’s Piano concerto in D for the left hand and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
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