Prom 63: Semyon Bychkov conducts The Oresteia & Manfred Symphony – Kirill Gerstein plays Rachmaninov

Overture ‘The Oresteia’, Op.6
Piano Concerto No.1 in F-sharp minor, Op.1 [Revised Version]
Manfred – Symphony in B-minor after Byron, Op.58

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 31 August, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) by Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov  (1850–1929)With the Taneyev and the Tchaikovsky Semyon Bychkov was revisiting the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s “Beloved Friend” project from last season (reviews below).

The music of Sergei Taneyev is more often recorded than given in a concert. The Oresteia is a singular reminder of his achievements for the stage. He eventually thought against including the extended Overture as part of the opera. Although Bychkov made the music’s rich layering and melodic contours clear, as well as Taneyev’s craftsmanship and gift for colour, there is no obvious individual creative personality at work – sparks of German Romanticism flickered and its proportions felt uneven. Certainly Taneyev knew when he had a good hymn-like tune and which the BBCSO relished.

In Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto (1892/1917) Kirill Gerstein produced wondrous clarity of tone either in scintillating passagework or thunderous octaves. That said there were times in the outer movements when soloist and conductor reduced some of the youthful fire and brimstone – I’ve heard some bruising accounts – and it was the work’s lyrical qualities and expressive refinement that were the main focus of this interpretation (with orchestral playing of melting warmth and swooping expressivity). Gerstein’s formidable technique was heard to striking effect in the first-movement cadenza in which he made light of its thickly textured fortissimos. In the slow movement (Julie Price’s bassoon charming the ear) there was plenty of poetic insight and transporting reverie, and the Finale brought further evidence of Gerstein’s virtuosity and the orchestra’s incisive contribution.

Lord Byron's Manfred on the Jungfrau, Switzerland (Bartlett)And so to Manfred, Tchaikovsky’s great programmatic Symphony based on Byron’s dramatic poem charting the tragic hero’s meditative wanderings through the Alps and on to his encounter with the infernal Arimanes. It was given a riveting account that raised questions as to why any conductor would want to make cuts and why the composer was so ambivalent towards this epic work. The faithful Bychkov scaled its dramatic rhetoric and expansive structure with ease, judging tempos and climatic moments to perfection and, only at the end, following the bacchanal and demonic fugue did the tension falter a little with the tepid organ entry signalling Manfred’s redemption through death.

Overall this was a high-voltage, impeccably performed account to which the BBCSO brought fierce commitment. From the first movement’s savage opening accents, Bychkov drove the score forward projecting it with maximum intensity; in the first movement the loneliness of horn solos made a special impact, as did the colouring of bass clarinet. Light-as-air string textures were a highlight of the second, deliciously pared-down in the hallucinatory closing bars before being snuffed out, and Dan Bates’s lilting oboe brought much evocation to the pastoral third movement, where high up in the Gallery a delicate bell resonated around the Hall as if calling to us across an Alpine valley – as part of a performance of tremendous conviction and energy.

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