sat 20/07/2024

Prom 63 review: Gerstein, BBCSO, Bychkov - total mastery of orchestral sound | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 63 review: Gerstein, BBCSO, Bychkov - total mastery of orchestral sound

Prom 63 review: Gerstein, BBCSO, Bychkov - total mastery of orchestral sound

Mighty Manfred, Tchaikovsky's grimmest protagonist, scales mountains

Semyon Bychkov conducting Musorgsky's 'Khovanshchina' earlier in this Proms seasonChris Christodoulou/BBC

No-one, least of all the players, will forget Semyon Bychkov’s 2009 Proms appearance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a poleaxing interpretation of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony.

They had already made the history books this Proms season with a searing concert performance of Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina when last night they did it again with a Tchaikovsky Manfred at the same, highest, level as the team's Barbican Francesca da Rimini.

Bychkov is one of those conductors who bring a special, deep-level sound with them. It helps that the BBCSO is in top form after years of training with the late Jiří Bělohlávek and ongoing work with their current chief conductor Sakari Oramo, who seems to enjoy the rare honour of being adored by everyone in the orchestra. The earthy sonorities in which Bychkov specialises opened both Taneyev’s Overture to The Oresteia – one half the pursuit of a grim fate, the other Apollo’s shining redemption for Orestes – and Manfred: in the first instance with writhing double basses, in the second piercing bassoons and bass clarinets protested by jabbing lower strings.

The Taneyev, despite its odd proportions and a feeling of going nowhere until the sacred processional arrives to save the day, kept its dignity by means of the unceasing attention to detailed colour; the interpretation has had a chance to find its way even more clearly since the same team performed it at the Barbican. Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto, a shallower interloper, needed a bit more fire in the orchestral ricochets of the outer movements and a less brittle sound in legato from soloist Kirill Gerstein (pictured below by Marco Borggreve), though his transcendental filigree and unstinting clarity were always impressive. Visually, this was a reversal of the Third Concerto performance earlier in the season, with pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk keeping his head down and conductor Thomas Dausgaard watching him like a hawk; Gerstein seemed to do all the watching. But the end results were the same – total cohesion between soloist and orchestra.Kirill GersteinManfred was unquestionably the main event, though. It has to be Tchaikovsky’s most elaborate score, four-fifths masterpiece until the composer opts for an absurd religious apotheosis which Byron’s tormented wanderer never gets; the better the performance, as here, the more you wish the conductor would follow a naughty established habit of cutting out the organ business and leaping back to a reprise of the thundering tragedy which ends the first movement. Is there room for some other composer to dare a new performing edition and get Tchaikovsky out of the quagmire in which he found himself during the finale’s underground orgy, starting so brilliantly?

At any rate the rest is unimprovable, and in an interpretation like this where both the full body of sound and the finessing made such an impact, you could only gasp at Tchaikovsky’s scaling back for the scherzo – all waterfall glitter with the woodwind making an unusually present contribution, beautiful rainbow and a central vision which serves up a vintage Tchaikovsky melody. The ensuing pastoral was led by an oboist I haven’t encountered in the BBCSO before, Dan Bates; pace Alan Hollinghurst’s question on what I meant by a “feminine” sound from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic principal the night before, this was a beefier tone, but still capable of sophisticated retreat. 

Other unfamiliar players making their mark included first horn Katy Woolley, posing melancholy enigmas in the first and third movements, and guest leader Igor Yuzefovich. For all the inevitable Proms swings and roundabouts in personnel, one thing’s for sure: the orchestra which provides the backbone of the Proms has never sounded better, and with a Sibelius cycle from Oramo promised for the following Barbican season, it’s worth reminding summer visitors that its life outside the world’s biggest music festival is just as vital.


Regarding the ending of 'Manfred', I must respectfully disagree with your preference on the end of the finale. I've actually heard it done, in Chicago, by Jaap van Zweden with the "Svetlanov"-ized version that slaps the 1st movement ending onto the 4th movement. I wanted to hear the work live, and figured that this was my one change. The 'Svetlanov'-ized ending is actually terrible to hear live. It's blatant and unsubtle, totally uncharacteristic of Pyotr Ilyich, who, IMHO, would never have done such a crude rehash, if he wanted to do that at all. The organ apotheosis may be a deviation from the original story (which I haven't read - need to get to that one day), but musically, it is so much more satisfying. So I still await the day when I hear Tchaikovsky's 'Manfred' properly done, the way he originally composed it. Interestingly, Bychkov is scheduled to conduct the CSO next May,, with 'Manfred' on the program. In March, the "other Kirill" brings the work to Carnegie Hall with the Bavarian State Orchestra. Agree about the stellar performance of 'Khovanshchina', heard over iPlayer (like this Prom), earlier this season.

Yes, a first-time Manfredian should be given the chance to hear what Tchaikovsky composed. But the end has always left me feeling irritated after all that superb invention - it's not even a good romantic apotheosis! Nearest it ever came to convincing me was in Budapest - Ivan Fischer conducting. The organ needs to peal out, which the Albert Hall one wasn't allowed to do last night. And I agree that slapping on the first-movement ending isn't ideal, which is why I suggest a recomposing - the stuck-in-the-mud feeling before it is a problem too.

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