Prom 34 is surely a contender for the most offbeat programme of the 2008 season. A symphony (Rachmaninov’s first) whose own composer deemed to be a disaster upon its completion might seem enough for any one concert. On this occasion, however, it was joined by a concert performance of one of three short operas that make up Puccini’s Il Trittico – and the least performed at that. Indeed, at the first UK performance of the trilogy in 1920, George V purposely timed his arrival for the end of Il tabarro.
But what Prom 34 also did was remind us that neither the popularity of a piece when it was first composed, nor the frequency of current performances of it, are necessarily reliable indicators as to its quality. Indeed, though the BBC Philharmonic’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1 in D Minor showed it to be no masterpiece, it also revealed it to be crucial to understanding the young composer’s development (he was 22 when he wrote it) and still interesting in its own right.
In the symphony’s opening Allegro ma mon troppo the strings were sufficiently bold and reacted well with the brass. They could have perhaps been slightly lighter at times, which might have highlighted further the eerie quality to the music, but still they brought out an appropriate sense of the ‘gypsy fiddle’, Rachmaninov having possibly inserted covert references to his feelings for Anna Lodyzhenskaya who was of gypsy extraction.
The symphony is often described as ‘losing its way’, and interestingly the strings went with this in playing out some long melancholic rhythms rather than trying to keep the music as focused as it possibly could be. This was successful in the first movement but then in the Allegro animato each separate section seemed to be played out to maximum effect, but all to the detriment of the overall coherence of the movement. Nevertheless, with the Larghetto featuring some beautiful rustic oboe playing, and the Allegro con fuoco seeing the strings frequently bubble under with menace, this performance hit the mark on the majority of occasions.
Telling the lowlife story of how Giorgetta transfers her affections from her older husband (the barge owner, Michele) to Luigi, only to see the latter meet a grizzly end, this concert performance of Il tabarro had one distinct advantage over a staged version. By leaving the exposure of Luigi’s corpse to the imagination, it ensured that the opera was not overshadowed by its bloody ending, and enabled us to see what it was really about: a group of characters who all possess their fair share of vulnerabilities.
On the night these were brought out by some incredible performances. Barbara Frittoli as Giorgetta frequently shone with her beautiful voice, although it seemed less suited to the delivery of passages with many short words where it was harder to put sufficient power behind them. Lado Ataneli similarly presented an interesting Michele, in which his despair at the passing of youth and love came to the fore, whilst Miroslav Dvorsky as Luigi was appropriately powerful where he needed to be, whilst also revealing through some melancholic singing that he too was a vulnerable creature.
But the real joy was that the performance of every minor character was just as polished. Barry Banks and Alastair Miles contrasted well as the stevedores, Tench and Mole, Allan Clayton demonstrated both a light and rich voice as the Song-Pedlar, whilst Jane Henschel as Ferret was as superb as ever. Add in an orchestra that vividly conveyed the sounds of the harbour, and my only conclusion could be that, whilst I can see why Rachmaninov’s first symphony does have it flaws, I have no idea as to why George V should ever have wanted to miss Il tabarro. Did the man have no taste?