Mother Russia’s Imperial Ways: Glowering and Exuberance

02/09/2017

Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC Proms 63 – Taneyev, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky: Kirill Gerstein (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.8.2017. (RBa)

Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev – Overture, The Oresteia
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor
TchaikovskyManfred Symphony

After his Austro-German adventures in earlier years, Semyon Bychkov returned to the Proms. This time an all-Russian programme held sway. While the 2017 Prom season has the Russian Revolution as one of its keynotes, this programme was firmly founded in Russia’s Imperial roots.

Quite apart from the power politics of a century that gave birth to these works, the programme also cohered around a daisy-chain of pupil-teacher-executant connections. Rachmaninov adored Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was a pupil of Taneyev, as was Rachmaninov. Taneyev completed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a work played at the Prom on 3 September. Taneyev was the pianist at the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and the premiere of the Second Piano Concerto. While the Grieg Concerto is said to be the frank model on which Rachmaninov based his First Concerto, Tchaikovsky left his mark on it: the opening call-to-arms is a none too distant extrusion of the gaunt fanfares of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

It was not so long ago that I was quibbling over another BBC orchestra’s lack of string section opulence; no such complaint this time. The strings, with violins divided left and right front of stage, yielded a sumptuous tone.

Ultimately, Taneyev’s overture, The Oresteia, is more in the nature of a symphonic poem than a practical prelude to his opera (1887-1894) of the same title. As we heard this 20-minute piece – an unusual visitor to these shores – it falls naturally into two parts. The first part groans and grumbles deep in the bass while contrasting aureate tendrils, seemingly lit from within, float high and free. This contrast makes way for the toils and coils of tragedy and some commanding work – not for the last time that evening – from the French horns. Bychkov, baton in hand for the whole concert, proved himself alive to the wash and interplay of the score’s hush and tension, as well as to its outbursts of Rimskian brilliance, aspects even more in evidence in parts of Manfred. The second section of The Oresteia eschews a typical barn-storming end in favour of a glistening and sonorously sung-out melody that feels like a dignified national anthem. It has about it a dash of top-drawer Glazunov, so much so that I began to wonder if Bychkov knew Glazunov’s Fourth Symphony. It would suit him very well. The overture ends in a long, caressing and gentle fall into silence. Orchestra and conductor knew the piece having played it together at the Barbican on 24 October 2016.

Part one of the concert ended with Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto dedicated to Alexander Siloti who was the composer’s cousin and piano teacher. Kirill Gerstein was the commanding soloist, although his way with this concerto felt less involved and involving than the ‘total war’ Alexander Gavrylyuk recently waged in the Third Concerto. Perhaps it was the music. This is, after all, an early score even if it was revised in 1917. There was plenty to admire and be seduced by, even so. Notable were Gerstein’s touching chiming confidences in the solo Cadenza at the end of the first movement. The second movement was romantically vulnerable with more lavish work from the strings. The shivering Froissart-style opening with its momentarily Elgarian paraph delivered a somewhat dry-eyed finale. Delightful to hear as it was, this Allegro vivace could have crackled with more tension.

The crown of the concert came with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. This was a continuation of Bychkov’s shared journey through the Tchaikovsky works under his ‘Beloved Friend’ series. The Barbican has been the scene of some of these. As for Manfred, Bychkov has, over the last twelve months, conducted it in Munich and Prague. He adopted a similar repeat programming approach a couple of years back for the Schmidt Second Symphony, which had performances at the Royal Academy, in Vienna and then at the Proms.

Making for a crowded concert platform, the orchestra included five French horns, two harps, triple woodwind, a lavish array of percussion and a beefily numerous contingent of strings. Richard Pearce sat on high at the organ for his sometimes omitted role in the finale. Tubular bells were placed – so it seemed to me from the left-hand stalls – way up high on the right, facing the concert platform ready for their isolated but telling part in the third movement. The division of first and second violins front right and left of the conductor nicely caught their trudging, epic, spatial role.

Bychkov does not pursue the sort of wild-eyed conflagrationist approach we might have experienced had we been hearing an Ahronovitch, a Svetlanov, an Ovchinnikov or a Golovanov. He takes a measured line that pays heed to the structure of the music and its long term rather than grasping at short term elation. The Byron-based programme seemed irrelevant in the face of the music’s self-sustaining strength of purpose. The rejection of instant pay-off glamour did at first come across as penny-plain but Bychkov’s decisions were telling. He drew great tenderness from the orchestra. Also notable was the care given to the score’s multitude of fine-tuned micro-transitions of speed and dynamic. Bychkov is endearingly attentive to these, rather than simply executing them by direction. He also drew attention to a long-time lesson. Here was a master orchestrator: clarity, clarity, clarity, yet timely excitement is never compromised. This is, after all, Tchaikovsky. Whatever doubts the composer might have had about Manfred, this performance showed them up as misplaced modesty. The balletic inner movements continued the brilliance with their En Saga and Capriccio Italien moments, their Jack Frost iciness, that delightful ‘Norwegian Wood’ melody for Dan Bates’s oboe and the bells-up horn fanfares in the Andante con moto. The two outer movements of this hour-long symphony delivered moments of resplendent and hoarse ferocity. At the close there was a sense that everyone had completed an epic journey of the soul. The quiet epilogue held a long silence in the hall, before rapturous applause for an account of Manfred that proved the dumb-founding climax of the evening.

Rob Barnett

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