Critical stares of Russian matrons sweep the Maison Symphonique lobby like Distant Early Warning radar stations, but their targets are their neighbours’ outfits and so I pass unharmed and invisible. I am not wearing any gold or miniskirt. Arriving at my seat, I discover the under-chair heaters have been replaced by samovars.
Yes, a spot of tea is lovely during a concert but we carelessly scald our feet, and there is nowhere to put any pastries. Which come from where, anyway? But Gergiev has just raised his arms – no baton, not even a toothpick for this air sculptor, and as he prods the Mariinsky orchestra into the allegro of Tchaikovskii’s first symphony, the last woman enters the hall with a plastic-bag-carrying buzzcut kid in tow.
The first symphony was the most difficult for Tchaikovskii to write; he believed that it was an immature orchestral work but perhaps his best. Hearing it played with the sixth confirms this judgement, particularly when it is performed by musicians with the irreproachable romantic credentials of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, in Montréal on one of their interminable tours.
Gergiev is on his tiptoes and we are off with a gallop, maybe on a sleigh, and wondering if he can sustain this feeling of arriving, always arriving? No. The second movement, rewritten on the insistence of Tchaikovskii’s strict elders at the Moscow Conservatory, is warm and familial like a cottage in the woods. Only the horn shudders remind us of the student’s squashed ideas that will soon blaze into full brass hysterics.
The scherzo makes the tiny white-haired grandma in front of me cry. She recomposes herself and flicks her scarf onto the shoulder of her neighbour, a frustrated-looking specimen who spends the remainder searching for a polite way to shrug it off. I don’t know how that story ended because I was distracted by the finale, which Gergiev milked with gusto; he enjoys the rubato – a flexibility with tempo that is common in Romantic works, and uses it to great effect, also holding fermatas very long, head bowed as if investigating the sonic properties of the new hall.
Tchaikovskii’s immaturity emerges in the endless bombast of the finale, but he never really got tired of that, so can it still be called immature? Cymbals bash while the timpanist pushes tuba and brass to suicide. When they do take breathers – a union rule – the confused audience bursts into applause early. Then suddenly there she is, the angel of intermission: a whisky.
Proceed to a fifteen-minute investigation of current East European fashion trends.
The sixth symphony was written thirty-three years after the first and premiered a week before Tchaikovskii’s death. It is a mountain of anticipation and hypertrophied melodies, beginning with the slow death and frozen echo of the opening, to be repeated by flute and oboe, which become a conversation between strings and woodwinds. Sixty voices become two or three.
The second movement expresses the slumbers of a ten year old gone to bed after reading Snow White, and the third returns with a more martial theme that builds to an explosion of brass and percussion of the kind mentioned earlier: less knife-edge, more of a murder scene.
The forth begins with what seems like a conciliatory adagio, but returns to grief with an overwhelming bitterness. It is in my opinion the most surprising and affecting movement of the symphony. I think one of the most hopeless moments in music occurs when the timpani sound their death rattle and the gong palls. Remorse floods the hall.
Gergiev and his musicians are long gone, but the concert will be broadcast on Espace musique “at a later date” on Soirées classiques, and online (http://radio-canada.ca/musique).