25th August 2016
Tchaikovsky wrote several symphonies and concertos, a number of which are deservedly popular and firmly established in the repertoire. Yet some of them, for whatever reason, do not enjoy the same favour and this splendid concert enabled us to hear two of his large scale but less frequently performed works.
The second piano concerto lies in the shadow of the first for popularity and, although it is probably too long, it nevertheless has many attractions. Tchaikovsky was never short of a tune or an elegant touch of orchestration and the work is full of felicitous touches. Soloist Kirill Gerstein had all the technical armoury required and delivered rousing fortissimos when required as well as the most dextrous and delicate finger-work. In the first movement especially, the wind section of the Britten-Pears Orchestra played their solos with exquisite care and affection. In the expansive slow movement the lead violin and cello made exceptional contributions and conductor Semyon Bychkov gave the spirited finale an extra layer of sparkle.
It was the composer Balakirev who, in 1882, suggested to Tchaikovsky that he should write a symphony based on Byron’s epic poem ‘Manfred’. The composer was initially reluctant and found composition difficult but the end result is a fascinating and hugely impressive work, almost an hour long. Manfred’s tortured personality is convincingly expressed in the arresting opening theme and both players and conductor invested it with power and authority. Later in the movement the strings produced a delicious pianissimo and they were on top form in the waterfall inspired second movement which closed with a wonderful display of controlled dexterity. The calm idyll of life in the Alps was beautifully captured with some fine wind playing. In the stormy finale, brass and percussion, already impressive, really came into their own and Armageddon seemed to arrive with the entry of the organ. However, the impeccable tuning of the wind and Bychkov’s unerring control took the work to a restrained and noble conclusion.
This was a superb showcase for two perhaps unfairly neglected works of no small merit. Full marks to Aldeburgh for their inclusion in the proms programme.