BBC Symphony Orchestra & Semyon Bychkov – Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project


Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov (above) in the second of their Tchaikovsky-themed concerts

Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880)

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, Op. 75 (1893)

Taneyev Overture: The Oresteia, Op.6 (1889)

Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 24 October

The Beloved Friend series being curated by Semyon Bychkov provides a revealing overview of Tchaikovsky through some lesser performed works. Not the least of which is the Serenade for strings that, though its individual movements emerge frequently on radio, is not so often encountered in concert. Too short to occupy a second or even first half, it makes for a lengthy yet viable opening item when, as tonight, a full-sized string section is deployed with panache.

Bychkov ensured a fervent response in the first movement, its animated main sections framed by the rhetorical motto theme that ultimately returns as an apotheosis, then found suavity as well as elegance in the Waltz. Despite lack of inwardness, the Elegy yielded real clarity in its denser passages, while the Finale proceeded briskly yet characterfully to its resolute close.

kirill-gersteinNext followed a rare revival of the Third Piano Concerto, itself reworked from an abandoned symphony and what would doubtless have become a three-movement entity had Tchaikovsky completed its Andante and Finale to his satisfaction prior to his death (these latter, as realized posthumously by Taneyev, make an effective whole – as Alexander Markovich demonstrated in a Royal Festival Hall account eight years ago).

As a stand-alone piece, the Allegro brillante (best known in its ballet incarnation by George Balanchine) unfolds a quirky and characterful sonata design – its themes distinctive for their emotional restraint, with a stealthy interplay between piano and orchestra that Kirill Gerstein (above) audibly relished. Momentum faltered marginally after a scintillating cadenza, but the final pages strode onwards to a decisive if peremptory ending.

Overall, a convincing account of music which warrants greater exposure. Hopefully Gerstein will yet tackle this work’s three-movement incarnation: for now, he returned for a reading of Méditation – the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Op. 72 collection – that oozed eloquence and poise.

More discussed than played in the West, Sergey Taneyev was as least as much a composer as pedagogue; a notable output of orchestral and chamber music capped by his ambitious opera The Oresteia. Beginning life as this latter’s introduction, the present overture expanded into an autonomous entity that surveys the opera’s dramatic content and is an eventful symphonic poem in its own right. Its complementary halves representing an archetypal ‘war and peace’ in dramatic as well as musical terms, the piece is harmonically questing and often texturally adventurous – not least in its extensive though never self-conscious writing for harps. Some 15 years after Taneyev last enjoyed a fair measure of exposure in London, Bychkov directed a fastidious performance to remind listeners that they are the poorer for this music’s neglect.

Even in an era intent on ‘concerto and symphony’ programming, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini has never lacked for performances – this symphonic fantasia mingling drama with pathos to a heady degree even for this composer. Bychkov accordingly upped the ante in the tempestuous opening, then secured a suitably rapt response from woodwind and strings in the central section depicting Paolo and Francesca. Its balletic continuation drifted as is often the case, but the final pages portrayed the hapless lovers’ descent into hell with unerring ferocity.

Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in Afternoon on 3, and available for 30 days thereafter via the Radio 3 website

Under the Surface at the Proms – About Schmidt

Prom 73, 10 September 2015 – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov at the Royal Albert Hall

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Schmidt at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Symphony no.2 in E flat major

‘Some music has to wait before it finds its place in the sun.’

This standout quote comes from an interview in the Proms program with conductor Semyon Bychkov, who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in this concert of two late Romantic symphonies. The work to which he referred was not BrahmsThird Symphony, which received an occasionally beautiful but ultimately rather lethargic performance in the first half, but the Second Symphony of Franz Schmidt, completed in 1913.

Schmidt’s music has only visited the Royal Albert Hall in full on two previous occasions. The Fourth Symphony, which experienced a revival when Frans Welser-Möst and the London Philharmonic Orchestra won a Gramophone Award for a recording of it in 1996, was heard at the festival in 1998. The relative success of this was followed by the massive sacred piece Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), which followed a similar path, recorded by Welser-Most in 1996 and performed by the same conductor in 2000.

Schmidt was a wholly suitable choice of composer for the Vienna Philharmonic, who have been revisiting important works in their history this year. Unlike the Brahms third they did not give the premiere of the Schmidt, but the connections with the composer are close. He became a member of the orchestra in 1896, where he played as a cellist – though he did not get on with Gustav Mahler, conductor at the time. Bychkov has championed the Second Symphony with other orchestras, so it made sense to finally bring it to the Vienna Philharmonic. From what I could tell this was their first season performing this or any of his symphonies. So what of the piece itself?

Written on a large scale, the Second clocks in at around 50 minutes. It is in three movements, the large second movement dominating at around half the length of the piece – and it was the centrepiece here. A colourful and richly layered set of variations on a theme, it delights in exploring a number of completely contrasting moods, drawing unusual textures from the orchestra that reveal Schmidt the organ composer. A few of the variations sound uncannily like right hand keyboard figures played at speed, with amazing clarity of colour.

There were clear influences from Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Bruckner – yet the music was nothing like a copy of any of these composers. Instead Schmidt managed to stamp his own personality on the piece, shying away from obvious statements so that the mood was at times strangely elusive, on occasion reluctant to commit to emotion with obvious meaning.

It had operatic qualities, for sure, which could be felt in the ebb and flow of the drama and in the swell of the melodies – but the unusually luminous colours dominated, Schmidt using the orchestra in his own individual way. Here he wrote especially taxing parts for violins and violas, but the crowning glory was the massive brass chorale that appeared towards the end and was resolved without fuss.

Only the Proms could have presented this combination of orchestra and music, and should be congratulated for doing so. It was expertly performed and well received, and should go a long way to giving Schmidt’s music the chance of a revival it deserves. It will be interesting to come back in five years and see if anyone else has taken up the baton from Bychkov.

Want to hear more?

A playlist combining the Second and Fourth Symphonies can be heard here:

Meanwhile for the massive Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), in a recent recording made for Chandos under conductor Kristjan Jarvi, click on the link below:

This is the last Under the Surface feature of this year’s Proms. There will be more explorations of rare repertoire on Arcana in the coming months, both through recordings and concerts. Stay tuned!