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 Tchaikovsky, Schnittke: Susan Bickley (mezzo), David Hansen (counter tenor), Robert Murray (tenor), Mark Stone (baritone), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Vassily Sinaisky (conductor), Barbican, London, 18.2.2011 (GDn)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op. 13, ‘Winter Daydreams’

Schnittke: Seid nüchtern und wachet (Faust Cantata)


Tchaikovsky's First Symphony is a great piece and deserves to be heard more. But it is a work that is susceptible to misunderstanding. Its title and the descriptive headings to each of the movements suggest a more genteel and pastoral score than what Tchaikovsky actually wrote. This, combined with the fact that the work avoids the doom-laden fate motifs of his later symphonies, can lead to performances that underplay the music's dramatic potential.

Vassily Sinaisky is the man to put this to rights. The performance he conducted this evening made no concession either to the composer's youth or to the imbalance between the score's monumental ambitions and its slightly lesser achievements. Instead, he conducted it as if it were the Fourth or the Fifth Symphony, making the most of the score's considerable dramatic potential. His tempi were never extreme, but he stretched the dynamic range at both ends, made every build-up and anticipation a real event, and strove throughout for maximum contrast of timbre and mood between the often-disparate consecutive passages.

True enough, this did have the effect of highlighting the work's deficiencies. Those long orchestral build-ups don't quite add up in the way they might, or indeed in the way they do in Tchaikovsky’s mature scores, but by aiming for the effects that Tchaikovsky had in mind, rather than making concessions to the score he produced, Sinaisky gave the work the helping hand it needs.

The BBC SO were on top form throughout the evening, and they really shone in the Tchaikovsky. The intense dynamics Sinaisky drew from the strings took them well out of their comfort zone. The string tone in the louder passages was rarely pretty, but that was more than compensated by the sheer visceral intensity they produced. In the inner movements, it was the woodwinds’ turn to shine, and their various solos and ensembles were all delivered with conviction and lyrical intensity. Even here Sinaisky insisted on driving the music and playing it for maximum dramatic power, and like the strings, the woodwind gave him everything he needed.

If Schnittke's Faust Cantata has suffered undue neglect, and I'd be tempted to suggest it has, that can only be a result of the demands it makes in terms the orchestral forces. Unlike Tchaikovsky's First, this is a mature work and one that delivers on its considerable ambition. You can't really do it by halves; you need the largest string section you can assemble and the largest choir. It must be a tough work to perform; whilst the discourse is generally tonal, Schnittke has a tendency to veer off into wayward chromaticism mid-phrase, but the forces assembled for this performance really excelled.

Sinaisky again went for maximum dramatic intensity, but where that often put him at odds with the nature and scope of Tchaikovsky's score, it was exactly in accordance with Schnittke's. The BBC Symphony Chorus took a few minutes at the start of the work to get into their stride, but from then on coped magnificently with Schnittke's many and varied demands. The soloists were a diverse group, but that also worked to the music's favour. Mark Stone played Faustus as a dignified but ultimately weak man, perfectly expressed through his controlled and never overpowering baritone. Robert Murray was by turns prosaic and compassionate as the tenor narrator, an appropriately solemn reading and a valuable reminder of the influence of Bach's Passions on the music. The Mephistopheles part is shared between a counter tenor and a mezzo, who this evening were David Hansen and Susan Bickley. On the night, Hansen outshone Bickley, producing a fabulously fierce and intimidating tone. Bickley seemed underpowered by comparison, which was probably due to her having sung in the (presumably very demanding) première of Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole the previous night.

But otherwise an excellent performance, particularly, from the BBC SO. Both works need good performances to achieve their full effect, and that is exactly what they got here. An evening to remember.

A recording of the concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 28 February at 19.00.


Gavin Dixon


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