October 9, 2003

Tchaikovsky and Lalo: still kicking after all these years

Edouard Lalo and Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky are two composers one might not immediately associate with each other. They hailed from different countries, flourished in different genres, and represented different schools of music. Yet the music of these two composers has much in common—a connection that rests on the notion of national musical identity, or lack thereof. The works performed by the Chicago Symphony this past Tuesday evening at Symphony Center, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, with Maxim Vengerov as violin soloist, and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, perhaps best exemplify the similarities between Lalo and Tchaikovsky.

Lalo (1823-1892), French by birth and trained in Paris, did not at first gain prominence as a composer. His early efforts leaned heavily toward the unfashionable genres of chamber music, and his early piano trios gained almost no recognition, as the medium was almost entirely neglected in France at that time. He made a living teaching violin and playing chamber music with a quartet he assembled to promote the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The formation of the Société Nationale (a Parisian concert society) gave Lalo an opportunity to pursue his ambitions as an orchestral composer, but in an essentially German style. It was not until later, in the 1870s, that the successes of his violin concerto and the Symphonie Espagnole (both composed for the famous Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate), significantly increased his fame. Following these works, Lalo became geographically restless, composing a Fantasie Norvegiénne for violin and orchestra, and Russian, a violin concerto.

It seems that Lalo was (as Mahler would infamously later say of himself, though somewhat polemically) "homeless": a Frenchman that preferred German genres, and later Spanish, Norwegian, and Russian flavors. Suddenly the comparison to Tchaikovsky seems less far-fetched.

In Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) case, the ambiguity of national musical identity is better known. Though he was born and raised in Russia, Tchaikvosky cultivated an attraction for Western Europe, especially France, early on, and he could read in German and French by age six. An oft-told anecdote has the young Pyotr kissing the map of Russia while spitting on the rest of Europe, except for France, which he covered with his hand. This ambivalence toward Western Europe would change, however.

While working on his fourth symphony in the spring of 1877, Tchaikovsky received a letter from one Antonina Milyukova, in which she claimed to be a formal pupil of his and expressed her undying love for him, even threatening suicide. For unknown reasons, among which his repressed homosexuality most likely played a decisive role, the composer resolved to marry her, proposing in June, only a day or two after meeting her for the first time. The marriage lasted less than three months, but the psychological effects on Tchaikovsky were drastic: he suffered a nervous breakdown and fell unconscious for two weeks.

After his separation from his wife (they were never actually divorced), Tchaikovsky's brother Anatoly took him to Switzerland, Paris, and finally Italy, where he completed the symphony in 1878. Though Tchaikovsky did return to Russia later that year, his life had changed forever. "The nomadic life for which he had expressed a desire was now his," writes Roland John Wiley. "Some 20 months of the next six years he spent outside Russia, and easily as much wandering within its borders, alighting from place to place for a few weeks at a time."

If we consider his musical style, a similar pattern emerges. Though steeped in the Russian style, Tchaikovsky's music cannot be separated from his affinity for western Europe. It is particularly in the symphonies that he, in Wiley's words, "displays the rapprochement of Russian individuality with this proudest of Western genres." It is important to note that since the composer's death, a great deal of commentary about his music has been aimed at defining his Russianness. Thus, Tchaikovsky, like Lalo, experienced a sort of musical homelessness, complemented by the literal homelessness of continual wandering.

The Fourth Symphony was composed, as mentioned, in the midst of Tchaikovsky's tumultuous relationship with Antonina. One can only assume that this experience would have had an effect on the work itself, and much has been made of reading a corresponding program into the work, aided by

Tchaikovsky's own ruminations about the symphony in his letters. The most famous of these disclosures is the association of the opening horn motif with fate, "that fatal force which prevents the impulse to happines," as the composer wrote. The motif does, in fact, have a chilling effect, and when it returns later in the first movement and again in the final movement, it wipes out everything and easily takes command of the music, as well as the listener.

Unfortunately, the alarming effect of the call was lessened on Tuesday by several cracked notes in the trumpets. They soon redeemed themselves, though, as some intonation problems in the woodwinds, poor blending in the strings, and inconsistent conducting combined for a rather passionless energy. Fortunately, the crisp, powerful, full sound of the CSO brass later reinvigorated both the movement and the entire symphony.

Barenboim's tempi were, to this reviewer, remarkably standard. The coda of the first movement was restrained, never feeling too rushed, though Barenboim and the orchestra still could not fully agree. The lyrical second movement was not melodramatically slow, and Barenboim literally danced around on the podium loudly enough to be distracting during the central più mosso section. The third and fourth movements, again opportunities for showmanship, were anything but.

I very much appreciated the precision an orchestra like the CSO can offer in executing the third movement, yet the final movement, even at a standard tempo, was not clean in spots. Barenboim only really pushed the tempo at the very end of the symphony, but though this did inject a sense of excitement into that moment, the orchestra again could not agree on a tempo until the brass finally came to save the day. The end effect was too little, too late: the final push could not make up for a mix of mistakes in the orchestra, and the lack of a unified conception from Barenboim. And it probably did not help that Barenboim, as he is prone to do, leaned back on the rail of his podium for lengths of time as if to physically show us his lack of desire or inspiration.

Vengerov's Symphonie Espagnole, on the other hand, exuded pure energy. An exceptional player with commanding stage presence, Vengerov wooed the audience with this virtuosic showpiece. The piece is a curious hybrid: a five-movement symphony for violin and orchestra, but as a musical evocation of Spain, complete with Spanish dance rhythms and folk-like melodies, it has been delighting audiences since its premiere. Bizet's Carmen has become the stereotypical sound of Spanish music in the classical repertory. However, Symphonie Espagnole was actually premiered a month before the opera and gained immediate international fame. Though Vengerov had some pitch issues when he soared to the uppermost realms of the fingerboard, his overall performance and boundless energy more than made up for it. Appropriately, he was given a standing ovation and four bows.

The juxtaposition of these two works, because of the personal and professional situations of their creators, lent a certain sense of coherence to the evening, despite the obvious differences between them. It is unfortunate, however, that an equal sense of coherence could not be achieved between Vengerov's energy and Barenboim's realization of Tchaikovsky's powerful symphony.