Splendid Russian Concert from Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich: Howard Shelley (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra,Vassily Sinaisky (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 15.10.2011 (MC)

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar’s Bride, overture (1898)
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 ‘The Year 1905’ (1957)

With themes currently being all the rage when compiling concert programmes a Russian connection prevailed for this concert. Thankfully the programme from three Russian composers wasn’t titled ‘Postcard from Russia’. Vassily Sinaisky, the recently appointed conductor emeritus of the BBC Philharmonic, is himself Russian born. Yet another thread was provided by the Saint Petersburg Conservatory as Rimsky-Korsakov was a professor there and Rachmaninov and Shostakovich were former pupils of the school. In terms of the familiar and the unfamiliar this brilliant piece of programming was just up my street. Certainly the Rimsky-Korsakov overture is rarely heard these days in the concert hall compared to Rachmaninov’s perennially popular Paganini Rhapsody. The final work of the evening, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11The Year 1905’ is known more by reputation rather than by the number of actual performances it receives.

The Tsar in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tsar’s Bride is none other than Ivan the Terrible, a name enough to send shockwaves through the body. The Tsar’s Bride Overture has none of the unpleasant associations of the evil 16th-century Russian Monarch, being an appealing if melodramatic score that brims with folk melody. Maestro Sinaisky ensured that there was sufficient joy and energy in the score that shifts between the extremes of thrills and geniality; never outstaying its welcome.

Virtually all lovers of serious music will know that Rachmaninov’s luminously imaginative set of piano variations Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini took its theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin. Howard Shelley the soloist in Rachmaninov’s romantic showpiece was spellbinding in the lushly glowing eighteenth variation for which the score is justly famous. With this glorious melody the marvellous string playing sent a shiver down the spine. Radiating a quiet assurance and with wonderful technique Shelley made everything look so easy. From this point Sinaisky’s orchestra gathered an explosive momentum playing with a real fire in their belly.

The failed Russian revolution of 1905 was the basis for Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 subtitled ‘The Year 1905’ to which he gives descriptive titles to each of the four movements. In addition it is thought that the score is a reflection of Shostakovich’s reactions to the events of the 1956 Hungarian uprising that was occurring at the time of its composition. An icy chill with an ominous expectancy infused the opening movement The Palace Square. Sinaisky established a slow burning tension in The 9th of January with playing that developed to an eruption of volcanic proportions. The volume that the orchestra provided was astonishing. Convincing was the bleak and unsettling calm that pervaded the Eternal Memory movement. Gillian Callow’s cor anglais solo was outstanding; its disconsolate cry reaching out movingly to all corners of the hall. With the final movement The Alarm Bell serving as a call to arms, Sinaisky cranked up the volume and excitement with great heft. It’s a work that conveys Shostakovich’s personal and political struggles and the audience loved it.

This splendid concert was being recorded and it is certainly worth looking out for the forthcoming broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Michael Cookson