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
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 http://members.aol.com/mikecohen/poe.bells.html).
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