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Rachmaninov and Walton: Viktoria Yastrebova (soprano), Frank Lopardo (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone),  BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus,  Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Barbican Hall, London. 19.3.2011(CG)

Rachmaninov: The Bells, Op. 35

Walton: Symphony No 1 in B flat minor

'The Bells',
Op. 35, was composed by Rachmaninov in 1912-1913. It therefore came after the First and Second symphonies, but before the Third. In many ways it can be considered to be Rachmaninov's Choral Symphony; it has four movements, and calls for a huge orchestra, a choir, and three soloists; soprano, tenor and baritone. The text is Edgar Allan Poe's, 'The Bells', freely translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, a prominent Russian poet. It is reputed to have been one of Rachmaninov's favourite compositions.

This is top-drawer Rachmaninov, showing him to be a true successor to Tchaikovsky, the composer he revered. In other words it is passionate, sometimes sombre, sometimes tortured, and sometimes utterly sublime. The use of the orchestra is brilliantly virtuosic, alive with brilliantly vivid colours, and always sure-footed. Rachmaninov's extraordinary harmonic sense is here in abundance - glowingly chromatic, yet always with a firm sense of direction.

This was a fabulous performance. Bychkov obviously adores the music, and directed the orchestra, choir, and soloists firmly but lovingly. Frank Lopardo sang the first movement, 'Silver Sleigh Bells', with sure intonation and a radiant tone, semi-eclipsed only by the BBC Symphony Chorus, whose contribution was nothing short of breathtaking. Next it was the turn of Viktoria Yastrebova to sing the second movement, 'Mellow Wedding Bells'. The choral writing here is more solemn, and it contrasts with ecstatic music for the solo soprano. As in the previous movement the solo part was superbly performed.

The third movement, 'Loud alarum Bells', is for chorus and orchestra, and here we're in a different world again, with dark colours and dramatic rhythms. Both chorus and orchestra continued to shine, and then we were plunged into the desolation of the last movement, 'Mournful Iron Bells', sung by David Wilson-Johnson to enormously moving effect. In this final movement the long, sad, cor anglais solo was beautifully played by Alison Teale. Towards the very end, Rachmaninov pulls out a master-stroke, and the music gently transports us into a major key; peace reigns, beyond death.

I understand that David Wilson-Johnson was a late replacement for the advertised soloist, Vladimir Vaneev. Regrettably, there was no announcement to this effect and I only learned of it by chance during a post-concert conversation with a member of the orchestra.

It was exciting to contemplate Walton's very different First Symphony after all this. Composed between 1931and 1935, it was instantly recognized as a landmark, and it's not hard to see why. In it Walton shows complete mastery of form and manages to be totally original, despite showing strong influences of some other symphonic geniuses, notably Elgar and above all, Sibelius. The first movement, with its virtually ceaseless energy and jagged rhythms rivals Beethoven's 5th in its use of a rhythmic leitmotif - it is extraordinarily concentrated, dramatic and powerful. The second movement is a fast, impatient scherzo, the third a reflective autumnal idyll, and the fourth a bombastic affair, featuring extended fugato sections and a splendidly triumphant coda.

Walton never found composing an easy business, struggling for months or even years to get things right. He had particularly serious problems with this last movement, so much so that the first performance had to be given with only the first three movements completed. There has been much speculation as to why Walton found it difficult to finish the symphony, which came following a hugely upsetting love affair with Baroness Imma Doernberg. Some say that it was a new love, Alice Wimborne, who enabled the block to be cleared, but in any case it is clear that the first three movements were very difficult to follow. Optimism was needed to counterbalance the storms and stresses particularly apparent in movements one and two, and optimism was in short supply in the economically and politically troubled times of the 1930's.

In this fabulous music, Bychkov, who has been making a speciality of this symphony, seemed less happy. Although the performance was certainly interesting, with much committed playing from the BBC SO, I felt there were problems with tempi, which sometimes threatened to undermine the symphony's strong design. The all-important dotted rhythms in the first movement began somewhat hesitantly, and there was too much rubato in the later sections. The second movement was taken more slowly than is the norm, and it simply felt too slow. The lyrical third movement fared better, but again I felt the last movement was taken at too leisurely a pace and excitement was lost. For me, this really did not compare with one or two of the excellent performances available on disc, say, by Vernon Handley, Previn, or even those by the composer himself.

Despite these gripes, this was a terrific concert, and it was gratifying to see the Barbican Hall choc-a-bloc with an audience obviously thrilling to the music.

Christopher Gunning

CG writesAs a composer myself, attending concerts is a necessary and lovely part of my life, and  there is nothing quite like the excitement of live music making. Periodically, as with all of us, I’ve been cross, reading reviews of concerts I’ve attended, often disagreeing with the mainstream critics, and frequently feeling that the reviewer failed to convey the essence of the music and of its performance. So it is interesting to have a go at it myself - and the first thing I’ve discovered is that it’s not necessarily easy! What I will aim to do is talk about the composer and the music, and try to judge whether or not the composer would have been content with the performance.

It’s inevitable that I will view things from the composer’s point of view; I have been writing music for most of my life – mostly scores for films and television, but more recently symphonies and concertos.  About my own career - my website can be found at


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