If the great composers’ lesser known works were allowed the chance to speak, what would they say? Would they shout “About time!” or maybe just cough dejectedly like Wheezy the squeaky penguin in Pixar’s Toy Story 2, forgotten on a dusty shelf? It’s hard to imagine any of Beethoven’s more neglected piano trios being coy about their own genius, but I rather imagine Rachmaninov’s underloved scores apologising, like their own composer, for their deficiencies.

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

Rachmaninov himself suffered terrible anxieties about the quality of his own music. When he toured one new set of variations, the story goes that he took the coughing of the audience as a sign of disinterest and vowed to skip the next variations when the hacking became particularly heavy. One night, he played just half the piece. His own early compositions clearly weighed heavily on his mind too; the piano concerto that acted as his conservatory graduation piece in 1891 was heavily revised in 1917, while revolution raged in the streets of Petrograd. Despite the chaos outside, he really fixed the First Concerto in revision, removing its tentative tone and instead giving it tremendous bite and velocity, qualities brought to the fore in Kirill Gerstein’s Proms performance. His razor sharp articulation carried well across the cavernous hall and made for a hugely exciting performance, though his jerky way with principal melodies left it sounding more flippant than the composer can have intended.

A substantial bonus in the Rachmaninov was particularly plush orchestral playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with gorgeous swooping strings bringing to mind the playing styles of the past. And the orchestra tackled the night’s real rarity – Sergey Taneyev’s extended concert overture The Oresteia – with the kind of commitment it needed. The overture compresses the narrative of Taneyev’s huge opera-of-the-same-name, spelling out a dark-to-peaceful-light arc that reminded me of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The journey holds the attention, though in truth, the tunes aren’t very good, particularly the final one representing the forgiving of Orestes, but with conductor Semyon Bychkov drawing such affecting sounds from the orchestra, the chance to hear music from one of 19th-century Russia’s forgotten composers was a welcome.

Semyon Bychkov conducts at the Proms earlier this season © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Semyon Bychkov conducts at the Proms earlier this season
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

You’ll most likely read about Taneyev as friend and student of Tchaikovsky, and it was the latter’s monumental and underloved homage to Byron that ended the concert. Manfred is his longest orchestral concert work and for a long time was considered baggy and repetitive. Conductors including Bychkov have, in recent years, reappraised the four-movement symphony and found it full of dramatic and richly melodic moments. It’s not without its problems, though. Conductors have to make a lot of difficult decisions about sustaining the drama for the full hour, about managing the return of key themes in a way that doesn’t sound like the composer’s recycling limited material and about navigating a finale that can seem meandering and, finally, a bit limp. Bychkov picked his way round most of these problems very well – Manfred’s tormented motif became a welcome reminder of the work’s central character and the finale really worked, the protagonist’s death all the more affecting for its brevity. Drama dipped, though, in the first movement, with Bychkov’s careful tempi letting the heat drop and the tension sag. The BBCSO again gave him outstanding playing, with a real highlight being the light-as-a-feather evaporation of the texture at the end of the second movement, reducing down to a few strings and then disappearing with barely a puff.

Whether totally successful or not, however, this outing of a once-maligned symphony - the fourth at the Proms since 2010 – showed Manfred to be that rarest of things: a piece it seemed no one liked, but that’s been dusted down, pored over anew and allowed to shout and sing almost as often as its better known siblings.