Review: BSO’s Russian Winter

For one evening (and one evening only) those present at Exeter Great Hall were transported to cold, 19th century St Petersburg and Moscow; an invited state of Tsardom overseen by the remarkable talents of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. With works by three of the biggest names of Russian Romantic music, the Orchestra gave a resounding, and even at times rousing, conclusion to the first instalment of performances at the Great Hall as part of their 2018-19 season.

The first piece to be played was Modest Mussorgsky’s Prelude to his unfinished opera Khovanshchina, set during the reign of Peter the Great. While the piece atmospherically evokes a dawn scene in Moscow, it can equally be seen as a melodious pondering on Russian identity. The Moscow about which is written, that of 1682, was on the brink of rapid Europeanisation under its new Tsar, something which Mussorgsky, a staunch nationalist, was opposed to. He was part of a group of composers, dubbed The Five, who attempted to introduce Slavic traditions to Russian music to oppose the Prussian, Austrian and especially French influences that were the staples of the period. Equally, he only composed in his spare time, and was otherwise indisposed, as the most Tsarist Russian of occupations: a civil servant. What was demonstrated beautifully in the Prelude by the orchestra was the newness of a music unfettered by Western Europe, whose warbling melody, for all its calm, questions the very notion of ‘Russianess’.

The next piece brought to the stage was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, and for this, pianist Alexei Volodin came to the stage. Despite Volodin’s wide repertoire of capabilities, Russian music is his absolute forte, and thus his performance of Rachmaninov was superb. His absolute control over his part of the piece, which at first dominates the orchestra as it introduces the first theme, but soon integrates itself within the music to work directly alongside the other parts. Antonio Méndez led the ensemble to crescendic heights throughout the first movement, building the tempo excitedly to evoke a memorable conclusion, before moving onto the second movement. This being the slow movement, the piano was restrained from such extreme staccato, and instead followed on from the flutes, led masterfully by Anna Pyne, as well as the clarinet section. Repeating this theme a second time, Méndez brought the orchestra to the most expressively Romantic section of the piece, with the piano becoming more intense and the orchestra demonstrating a fluidity of passionate emotion. The Finale brought the essence of Rachmaninov’s piece, which in fact marked the end of a proverbial winter in the composer’s musical output, stunted by clinical depression. Anyone familiar with Frank Sinatra’s Full Moon and Empty Arms will recognise the melody as derived from this movement, which perhaps, more than anything, should be seen as a testament to the music’s sheer relatability. Ultimately, the piece is a triumph of the artist over the restraints of one’s own psyche, and unlikely as it may seem, Exeter Great Hall witnessed just that, presented wonderfully by the BSO.

Following the interval, the orchestra performed the most traditional piece of the night, and yet certainly the piece which best epitomised the theme: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.1 ‘Winter Daydreams’. Despite Tchaikovsky (albeit affectionately) dubbing it “a sin of my sweet youth”, it is a symphony that clearly illustrates the greatest strengths of its composer, namely his strength in definitive melodies, hence his reputation as such a powerful icon of Russia as a militaristic and newly-industrialised country. Yet the BSO managed to draw out the deeper resonance within the wintry subject matter. With Mark Derudder as leader of the first violins, the orchestra meandered through the intricacies of Tchaikovsky’s eclectic piece, which draws from a variety of sources. With work from his own compositions, as well as references to Russian folk music (Mussorgsky would surely have approved), the symphony was brought to its dramatic conclusion, powerfully releasing the tension of the season – this followed by rapturous applause and several cheers, as the BSO ended what has been an incredible term of work, and signalled the beginning of a winter hopefully not so severe as its Russian counterpart.

Ben Britton

Photo Credits: Eric Richmond


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