PROM 68: Szymanowski and Rachmaninov Compensate for Dull Tchaikovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 68: Tchaikovsky, Szymanowski, and Rachmaninov: Baiba Skride (violin), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.9.2013 (MB)


Prom 68  CR BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Prom 68 CR BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13, ‘Winter Daydreams’ (revised version, 1874)
Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
RachmaninovSymphonic Dances, Op.45


Some rather odd programming here. I am the last person to say that we should revert to the ‘bad old days’ of wall-to-wall overture-concerto-symphony concerts, but in this case, it might well have proved more coherent. Not that reworking of the programming would necessarily have rescued Tchaikovsky’s hapless ‘Winter Daydreams’ Symphony. I suppose it is worth giving such works occasional outings, if only to remind us why they are not more often performed, but when there is such a host of fine music that continues to languish in (concert, if not always recorded) obscurity, do we really need a Proms Tchaikovsky symphonic cycle?

Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra – despite, or because of the considerable number of female musicians in its ranks? – nevertheless did their best by the work. It opened with wonderfully alert, lively playing, perhaps especially from the woodwind section, whose colours veritably shimmered. Petrenko imparted a strong developmental sense to the music, if at times his reading sounded rather driven. (Tchaikovsky marks this first movement Allegro tranquillo, though what that might mean in practice is anyone’s guess.) It was enjoyable enough, if ultimately quite lacking in structural coherence. The slow movement was songful, the Oslo woodwinds again offering especial delight. Solo oboe (David Friedemann Strunck) was first among equals, though the other lines gathering around his were in no sense inferior. Yet the movement soon began to outstay its welcome, not helped by the bizarre outburst from the horns (again, a criticism of the work, not its performance). The third movement came across with the proper character of a scherzo: often delicate, but with definite rhythmic drive; the trio evinced Romantic longing with considerable conviction. As for the finale, there was a splendidly lugubrious build up to what ultimately is little more than an incoherent succession of devices, contrapuntal writing in particular sounding quite unmotivated by the material. It was played with relish, but really…

What a relief then it was to turn after the interval to Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. Its single movement – a span concealing, or rather revealing, a multitude of sins – opened as if recollecting Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, before Baiba Skride’s sinuous, erotically-charged violin line emerged as if from within. Tone was clean yet inviting, and could become richer when required, especially when playing sul G. (Again, I could not help but wonder how our unreconstructed conductor could maintain his concentration, yet somehow he managed.) The discontinuities that ultimately are continuities of Szymanowski’s radical form emerged just as strongly as Tchaikovsky’s forlorn attempts at coherence. Purpose was present throughout. Yes, the music is perfumed, yet that it is only a small aspect of the composer’s writing, revel though we do – and did – in the post-Debussyan, post-Straussian, and yes, post-Schoenbergian harmonies and colours. Petrenko shaped the great orchestral climaxes surely, but it was the silvery violin and delicate woodwind that lingered longest in the mind. Not, of course, that the violin does not have its more energetic, incisive moments, and they were splendidly despatched. Above all, there was a true sense of directed fantasy from all.

The last time I had heard Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances had been in a typically slapdash effort from Valery Gergiev. If the programming on this occasion were a little unsatisfactory, it nevertheless helped Rachmaninov more than Gergiev’s placing him after twelve-note Schoenberg had. It is difficult not to think a work such as this, written in 1940, a little retrograde – and not in the Bachian sense Schoenberg would have had in mind. Yet here at least Rachmaninov’s music was able to resound with integrity, ironically sounding far more a statement of exile than it had in Gergiev’s LSO series, allegedly organised around the idea of ‘exile’. One heard the composer grappling in so many senses with a New World: remaining himself and yet adapting, reluctantly or otherwise, to some aspects of modernistic common currency. Petrenko offerd a first movement as alert as anything we had heard so far, rhythm and colour once again equally to the fore. The saxophone solo offered not our last recollection of Ravel. If there were times when a little more orchestral weight might not have gone amiss, especially in the developmental music, Petrenko and his players offered in general a good balance between heart and wit. That balance was also well struck in the second movement, whose waltz music benefited from a gorgeous lilt. It was nicely elliptical too, no easy answers being offered. A life-long obsession with the Dies irae chant sounded genuinely revisited, refreshed, in the finale: a different variety of dance, yet a dance nonetheless. And, whatever one’s opinions about the backward-looking nature of Rachmaninov’s music, the ending, unlike that to Tchaikovsky’s symphony, convinced.

Mark Berry