Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells is a rare treat, and its performance at the Barbican this Friday, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov was a perfect opener to Hallowe’en weekend. The Russian text is loosely based on a poem by Poe, that master of the spine-chiller, and although the piece begins with the sound of jolly Christmas sleigh-bells, it is clear from the occasional discordant woodwind underlay that all will not end well; indeed, it is easy to believe that the almost over-frolicsome twinkling beginning, created by celesta, piano and harp, might have suggested the opening scenes of The Nightmare Before Christmas to Tim Burton.
The orchestra tackled the piece brilliantly, summoning all of its moods: the lush string opening of the magnificently Wagnerian second movement (Mellow Wedding Bells); the swirling flutes and violins at the opening of the third movement (Loud Alarum Bells), and the subsequent calamity-laden brass entries; the funeral tolling of the Mournful Iron Bells in the last movement.
The BBC Symphony Chorus was also mostly spot on, and managed the changes in colour with verve, although the final consonants in the more fast-moving sections of the third movement were not as aligned as they might have been.
The soloists, too, were perfectly chosen: Vsevolod Grivnov’s bright Russian tenor provided a sufficiently icy tone for The Silver Sleigh Bells; Emily Magee’s wonderfully creamy voice matched perfectly the chromatic string passages of the second movement, and Anatoli Sivko’s sonorously focused bass gave us the mourners at the cold tomb – his pale complexion and high cheekbones conjuring the image of Burton’s Jack.
Tchaikovsky’s sixth and final symphony received its first performance 123 years ago, to the day, and, in spite of the exquisitely elegant tune in the second movement, the rumbustious march in the third movement, and the famous ‘love’ theme in the first, is permeated with themes of death, which flower into full grief-stricken beauty in the final Adagio lamentoso.
Throughout, Bychkov’s absolute understanding of Tchaikovsky’s intent shone through – the tempi and dynamics were masterfully handled (the climax to the main theme at the end of the peerlessly performed march of the third movement was a triumph of control). The orchestra responded in kind, giving an outstanding account: a heart-aching cello opening to the second movement, followed by some fine pizzicato work with just the right lilt to the five-four-time waltz; a march, in the third movement, to set heads nodding and toes tapping, and a final yearningly bleak close. Alas, though, the orchestra seemed only to get into its stride fully in the latter three movements; the opening movement, while good, felt somehow hesitant, and displayed none of the radiant qualities of the other three movements, in which the rare magic of complete synergy was absolutely in evidence.