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 PROM 57 - Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky: Stephen Hough(piano), Steven Isserlis(cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra,David Robertson, Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.8.2009 (BBr)


Tchaikovsky: Concerto Fantasia in G major, op.56

Variations on a Rococo Theme, op.33 (original version 1876/1877)

Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasia after Dante, op.32

I’ve often felt that there is a letter missing from the title of Stravinsky’s final ballet. Agon(y) is a dispassionate, unemotional and quite heartless piece of work, one of Stravinsky’s earliest forays into 12 note composition and it's easy to wonder if he was really happy with it. Certainly there’s none of the Webernian precision which we find in the later Movements for piano and orchestra and or the Requiem Canticles. At one point I was reminded of the spoof German composer Bruno Heinz Jaja, invented by Hoffnung for his concerts, for the composition seemed as ludicrous as anything Humphrey Searle composed in that guise. Also, I felt that the performance wasn’t as tight as it might have been, with several tentative entries from various members of the orchestra. Was this a sign of under rehearsal, the conductor not being able to muster his troops or simply a failing in the compositional process? I genuinely don’t know, but what I do know is that this is not the best of Stravinsky. Better was to still to come, and had already been. Perhaps, if we view Agon as a transitional work we might be more sympathetic towards it, but, truth to tell, I couldn’t care less.

This performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto Fantasia concluded Stephen Hough’s survey of the composer’s four concerted works for piano and orchestra. It’s a real chocolate box confection, with bells and tambourine to the fore. It’s oddly constructed, the first movement starting well with a delightful theme, with bells, but all too soon there’s a long, very long, Lisztian cadenza which fills up some time but does little else; it is also marvelously over the top. Then the opening music is recapitulated and it comes to an end. That’s it? Yes it is, that’s all there is to it. The second movement, of two, is in several sections, some of it kitschy salon music, and there’s a circus chase scene: it’s hilariously entertaining, but there’s insufficient contrast – odd in a movement called Contrastes! Ultimately there simply isn’t sufficient material to justify the duration of the work – about 25 minutes – and it’s easy to see why it hasn’t been performed at the Proms since Herbert Fryer, with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Timber himself gave it in 1903.  Hough was in wonderful tongue–in–cheek control throughout.

After the interval, Stephen Isserlis played Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme in the composer’s original version. This might seem an unusual comment but the cellist for whom it was written, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, took it upon himself to make copious changes to the score which was only discovered when Tchaikovsky’s original manuscript came to light in 1941. The more I hear this work the less I think it is a piece of fluff – an opinion  I have held for, perhaps, too long. It’s certainly a far superior work to the Concert Fantasia and in terms of satisfaction among Tchaikovsky’s concerted works, and it can hold its own against the Violin Concerto. That it is a set of Variations and not a Concerto will always mitigate against it when cellists are seeking a work for the concert hall:   it is short, perhaps too short, and although virtuosic, the 8 variations do lead to a set of miniatures rather than a meaty Concerto movement. Stephen Isserlis is a superb advocate for the piece though and tonight he played with all the warmth and understanding the music deserves.

Francesca da Rimini
is full of anguish and much of the music is tortured, as you’d expect from the subject matter – Francesca, daughter of Guido I da Polenta was promised in marriage to Giovanni Malatesta, son of Malatesta da Verrucchio. As Giovanni was deformed,  the wedding was undertaken by proxy with Paolo, Giovanni’s handsome brother, standing in for the bridegroom. According to Dante, in his Inferno, Francesca and Paolo became lovers, were surprised and murdered by Giovanni and were condemned to the lower circles of Hell because of their sin of adultery. Hell is supposed to be somewhere to which people are not sent arbitrarily and whilst Dante might see Hell emerging as a consequence of irresponsibility Tchaikovsky obviously felt sympathy for Francesca and her plight. It’s a big piece, with a huge orchestration and some fine love music.

Robertson led a good performance but, as with all the performances in this concert, it seemed lacklustre and never really got going, remaining firmly earth bound. It was enjoyable but dull. This is no criticism of the orchestra, which played well; rather that David Robertson didn’t seem comfortable with the music.

Bob Briggs


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