Forget Tchaikovsky’s ballets. I find them boring: pleasant melodies but insufficient development. His fourth symphony, on the other hand, ticks all the boxes for this time of year. It’s the kind of the music that fills all of the gaping holes January presents us with in the first few days of the year. In the saccharin-drained reality of the New Year, Tchaikovsky presents us with drama and excitement with flashes of unbridled joy.
The first movement – 18 minutes long – is epic. “It feels like he’s beating us about the head,” says Simon as we speed down the A12 away from Southwold and towards London. He’s talking about Tchaikovsky’s trademark fanfare spelled out at the beginning of the work and repeated in all sorts of guises throughout. The electric charges peppered throughout the entire work.
After that, solitude. Just the right side of self-indulgence, Tchaikovsky gives us the opportunity to remember someone or something. To pay homage. Pause to consider the way he opens the movement with the melody in the oboe, and closes it with the same melody first played on a mournful bassoon.
The third movement – a scherzo. More trademark Tchaikovsky. Pizzicato strings. The pompous wind kick in soon after with their version of the material. They’re trying their best but they’re never going to rise to the challenge set by those pizzicato strings. They rule this movement. Especially those arpeggio scoops that start deep in the cellos and basses and end up in the upper strings. Tchaikovsky at his absolute best. And then they all come together. Wind and pizzicato strings. Just for a moment. Brilliant.
And for those of us who like things loud and fast, the fourth movement.
I first played this with Suffolk Youth Orchestra somewhere in the early 90s. I didn’t have a lot to do. I know I didn’t play cymbals in the last movement. Or the timps. That was left to George Double and Nikki Gilbert respectively. I must have played the cymbals in the first movement and maybe the triangle (or maybe the bass drum) in the last. I remember it being a ridiculous riotous moment of fun. Unbridled joy.
It’s still technically acceptable to wish people a ‘Happy New Year’. So, if Beethoven’s 9th didn’t do it yesterday, Tchaikovsky’s fourth must surely usher it the new year in today.