Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBC Prom 8: BBC Phil/Sinaisky – Pärt, Rachmaninov, Gliére @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 July 2007

Gliére’s Third Symphony may be a daunting proposition at eighty minutes, but it finds itself ideally suited to a Proms performance – in this case, its very first.

Written at a time when the programmatic symphony was enjoying something of a boom, thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Sibelius, the massive symphony is based on the Russian legend of Ilya Muromets, and tells his story from beginning to end.

Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic had a tough job on their hands to master the symphony’s structure and technical demands, but they did so with marvellous playing. While the opening and closing pages bear an inescapable similarity to the Richard Strauss of the Alpine Symphony, not to mention Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, Sinaisky ensured that here the music spoke with its own voice.

We certainly felt like a journey had been completed by the end – the brooding first movement, setting the scene with a richly scored plainsong passage for brass that was particularly affecting, before Gliére’s skill as an orchestrator made itself known in the rustlings of the forest and the colourful bustle of the central movements.

Sinaisky gathered his troops for the finale, where this piece lives or dies, and though the subject Ilya Muromets meets a stony end, the orchestra successfully rallied the principal themes to round off an extremely impressive interpretation.

The necessarily brief first half featured what should have been two crowd pullers, but the sparsely populated stalls and boxes were sadly at odds with this. A shame, since Nelson Goerner‘s clarity in Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody brought out an unexpectedly classical quality, clean cut but extremely musical. Even the famous eighteenth variation reigned in emotional excess, but this brought across the beauty of Rachmaninov’s melodic writing. A suitable climax was reached in the following variation, the brass intoning the Dies Irae to good effect.

Even more restraint was evident in the brief concert opener, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. If ever there was a good example of effective simplicity in classical music, this was it – the sighing theme that falls down the scale by step, underpinned by marvellously full bodied bass notes towards the end – and punctuated by bells. In that sense, clearly a product of the 1970s – but in every other way, a deeply felt homage.

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