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Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov: Soloists; BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov. Barbican Centre, April 19th, 2002 (CC)


Ever the musical chameleon, the BBC Symphony Orchestra reminded all present at the Barbican of just what they can achieve when playing under a conductor they clearly respect. Evgeny Svetlanov is just the sort of conductor to inspire his musicians, as he did in January for a memorable Rachmaninov Second Symphony with the Philharmonia at the Festival Hall.

It was miraculous that both the Tchaikovsky (the First Symphony) and the Rachmaninov (The Bells) emerged as newly minted, fresh and, most importantly, utterly convincing. Inspired by the première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Symphony in December 1865, Tchaikovsky produced a work of Romantic outpouring and joy. Right from the easy lyricism of the opening, Svetlanov ensured that textures were light and that all the felicities of scoring were clearly audible. This was a trait that permeated the entire performance, and meant that the Scherzo made a clear reference to Mendelssohn; the tender harmonies of the Adagio cantabile ma non tanto emerged clearly without a hint of indulgence; and the Trio had a delightful lilt.

It seemed as if the players of the BBCSO simply could not give enough. The wind in particular were uniformly excellent (how nice it is to mention a bassoon solo – the opening of the fourth movement was truly beautiful), while the brass showed themselves capable of playing at large volumes without either breaking tone or distorting chordal balance.

Overall, though, it was Svetlanov’s inspired direction that produced this memorable event. The ebb and flow was so completely natural that one wondered (and not for the first time, in my case) why this work is not heard more often. There is so much to enjoy (and this comment goes for all of Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies) that the hegemony of Nos. 4-6 seems decidedly unfair.

Rachmaninov’s The Bells is another work that deserves more performances than it receives: it was a favourite of the composer amongst his own output. It is a setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, ‘The Bells’ in a Russian version by Konstantin Balmont (the for reference, original Poe poem may be found at

It is to be hoped that Pletnev’s recent recording has helped it’s cause (DG 471 029-2, with the inspired coupling of Taneyev’s Op. 1, St John of Damascus). Svetlanov made a powerful case for the piece, helped in no small measure by the BBC Symphony Chorus (outstanding, especially in the chorus-only third movement, where Svetlanov built up layer after layer to engender a tremendous sense of momentum). The conductor’s grasp of orchestral detail was staggering and led to an almost overpowering performance.

Of course it is vital that the trio of soloists is carefully chosen. It was perhaps a shame that the weakest of the three on this occasion was featured first: the tenor Daniil Shtoda was simply too weak and could not make himself heard sufficiently over the orchestra. The two remaining soloists were in a very different league. Elena Prokina first impressed me in a concert performance of Aleko at the Proms a few years ago: here in The Bells, she was positively radiant. In fact, Prokina seemed well nigh ideal: heartfelt, well-projected with a full tone that had just the right amount of vibrato. She also has a magical ability to ‘float’ a note over the orchestra. Sergei Leiferkus needs no introduction: really big, true Russian sound coupled with exemplary diction. His final stanza (‘and the hollow bell sobs/and groans through the silent air/slowly proclaiming/the stillness of the grave’ in the Decca translation reprinted in the programme) was full of sadness.

Whatever the standard of the soloists, however, the evening belonged to Evgeny Svetlanov, who inspired the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra to give us one of the highlights of the season so far.

Colin Clarke



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