Svetlanov and the BBCSO – 19th April

Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 (Winter Daydreams)
The Bells, Op.35

Elena Prokina (soprano), Daniil Shtoda (tenor) & Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Evgeny Svetlanov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 April, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Doyen of Russian conductors, Evgeny Svetlanov has enjoyed a lengthy and successful relationship with London orchestras – notably in repertoire that highlights his understanding of Russian symphonic music. The present concert will not have surprised – but have delighted all the same – those familiar with his trenchant interpretative manner, in which clarity and insight go hand in hand with an imposing but never overbearing podium presence.

Like his Third Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s first work in the medium (1867) enjoys a far higher status on disc than it has done in the concert hall. Yet for all its overtones of Mendelssohn and – as David Brown’s programme note reminded us – Anton Rubinstein, this attempt by the barely 23-year old St Petersburg graduate to consolidate an emergent Russian symphonic idiom has a freshness and, for much of its length, conviction that the older and wiser composer was not averse to acknowledge.

Svetlanov kept a firm hold on the opening movement’s (’Allegro tranquillo’) often agitated flights of fancy, and gave the strings their head in the wonderfully evocative ’snowscape’ that is the ’Andante cantabile’: his bringing out of expressive nuance when the cellos take over the second theme was a joy to behold. The ’Scherzo’ moved along playfully at a moderate tempo, Svetlanov accommodating the pensiveness of the trio with little change in pulse. As in other Tchaikovsky symphonies, the ’Finale’ is the weakest movement, failing to wrap up the symphonic potential with sufficient coherence. Yet Svetlanov built up cumulative momentum in the lengthy ’Andante lugubre’ sections persuasively, and ensured that the tub-thumping qualities of the ’Allegro’ sections were held in check. The coda blazed confidently but not coarsely in consequence.

While ’Winter Daydreams’ emerged at the outset of the ’golden age’ of Russian symphonism, Rachmaninov’s The Bells (1913) stands obliquely at its close. The composer must soon have realised that Edgar Allan Poe’s lengthy poem – its pathos given a mystical gloss by Konstantin Balmont’s Russian translation – made an ideal symphonic framework, the four types of bell corresponding to the human life-cycle in a four-movement groundplan. And the almost total lack of the sequential longeurs that undermine the Second Symphony suggests that the work’s symphonic potency was envisioned from the beginning.

Svetlanov set an animated but flexible tempo for the opening depiction of the silver bells of youth, Daniil Shtoda coping well with the high tenor part, until overwhelmed by chorus and orchestra at the climax. The rapt evocation of the golden bells of marriage brought an appropriate radiance to the music-making, Elena Prokina making the most of – but never over-milking – the luxuriant expression. The BBC Symphony Chorus came into its own in the nightmarish ’Scherzo’ evoking the bronze ’alarm’ bells of crisis, Svetlanov’s moderate tempo allowing the singers to articulate the demanding cross- rhythms and antiphonal writing to striking effect, while conveying the music’s implacable slide towards disaster. The iron bells of death that underlie the ’Finale’ came as a tragic but inevitable aftermath, Sergei Leiferkus’s lyrical baritone compensating for a lack of emotional weight with the intelligence of his phrasing. Svetlanov guided the music gently through to the coda, crystallising the work’s expression in a mood of calm acceptance.

The warmth of reception from the BBCSO’s members indicated the rapport on which this concert had been grounded. Long may Svetlanov continue as the last surviving ’old master’ of the Russian school!

  • Yevgeny Svetlanov returns to London on 5 May for a Philharmonia Orchestra concert of Balakirev, Sibelius (Violin Concerto – Viktoria Mullova), Liadov and Scriabin. Royal Festival Hall at 7.30 – Box Office: 020 7960 4201

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