Review: Tchaikovsky's First Symphony - CBSO, at Symphony Hall

The CBSO must be the most-recorded orchestra in the country at the moment, with the microphones out in force again on Wednesday for the Orfeo label to set down the latest instalment in what is obviously going to be a complete cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies under Andris Nelsons, running alongside their growing CD exploration of Strauss tone-poems.

This time the symphony was Tchaikovsky’s First, a work of some troubled gestation, but with a strength of personality all its own.

It opens with an instant evocation of a snowy fairyland (hence its ‘Winter Dreams’ nickname), just one of several fingerprints hinting at the maturer composer: gorgeous melodies, virtually vocal woodwind (every department here outstanding), sumptuous string-writing, richly, meltingly delivered, busy fugato sections, and always an innate sense of drama.

There are some weaknesses, however: an over-reliance upon formulaic sequences, some grandiose rhetorical devices, and Tchaikovsky hadn’t yet acquired his famous facility for horn-writing -- witness one stentorian unison passage which must have sounded dreadful when delivered with the notorious Russian ‘vibrato’.

But it remains a fascinating work, and Nelsons responded to it with natural empathy, inventing balletic gestures to convey every tiny expressive detail..

Tchaikovsky once described Brahms as “that scoundrel, that talentless bastard”. Perhaps he’d never heard his contemporary’s First Piano Concerto, which is a masterpiece of symphonic cohesion, virtuosity and deep emotion always at the service of the bigger picture.

It came as a bit of a jolt to hear this, though, when an even greater work, Brahms’ Second, had been announced in the CBSO prospectus, and in fact the opening movement from soloist Helene Grimaud and Nelsons’ orchestra never really took off.

Some aspects of the orchestra’s response to Brahms’ dark, roughly-hewn orchestration were uncomfortable, and Grimaud’s nervous strength in performance of this physically demanding writing sometimes resulted in distracting visuals.

But there was a superb meshing of soloist and orchestra in these textures of chamber-music on a large scale, and the slow movement was a wonderful oasis of contemplative stillness and other-worldliness.

The finale, intricate and busy, brought a triumphant conclusion, greeted with an ovation which almost matched the huge one at the end of the first half’s Tchaikovsky.