A multinational line-up of performers tackled three varied pieces from the Russian masters at Bristol’s Colston Hall. Never failing to provide an interesting programme, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performed the music of the Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich under the baton of the BSO’s Conductor Laureate Andrew Litton. The opening suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden set the tone with reflections on Russian folk music, and it served its purpose as a warm-up to the two larger works of the evening. Though slightly subdued in nature, the woodwind took the lead in a wholesome performance.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Irish pianist Barry Douglas was the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, providing an interesting take on the piece. He started off quite heavy-handed, using his full body weight through the notes in the first few passages. The force through the keys was from the back, whereas later in the third and final movement he eased up, playing harp-like scales rippling over the piano. His contrast in playing styles was unique, and certainly unlike any other rendition of this concerto I have witnessed. Despite the contrast, there was still a romantic quality to the concerto. Much feeling went into the solo transition between piano and cello (Jesper Svedberg) in the Andante second movement. The cello’s rich tone accompanied by Douglas’ light-footstep sparkles on the piano melded into a beautiful sound.

To round off the piece, the Allegro con fuoco was spritely and energetic. Douglas showed even more fluidity, though the final dramatic recapitulation of the theme lacked the big, sweeping, romantic gesture that Tchaikovsky’s music needs. There was no doubt that it was a refreshing take on what is a fairly overplayed piece and it was interesting to hear a new interpretation. Where a more traditional performance would leave the heart melting after the sweet second movement, this time, the “storm in a tea cup” third movement left the more lasting impression. Douglas signed off with a sweet little Tchiakovsky piece, Autumn’s Song, which was approached gently and more tenderly than the concerto.

American conductor Andrew Litton showcased his skills with the baton for the final part of the evening. The headline of the concert was the chance to observe and listen to the BSO’s presentation of Shostakovich’s misunderstood and difficult Symphony no. 6 in B minor. Since “Perestroika” – the reformation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1980s –and the west’s subsequent increased access to those who lived and worked with Shostakovich himself, his large volume of work has undergone a complete reappraisal. First premièred in Moscow in 1939, the Sixth Symphony was slated by Soviet critics as a “symphony without a head” and “schizoid” because of its long opening Largo which bore no relation to the shorter twinned movements that followed, “apparently oblivious and irreconcilable with each other”. The composer’s own fine line of compliance within the Soviet politics and inner need for defiance led him to rebel and create a symphony, commissioned in honour of Lenin but with a pinch of salt.

Litton connected with the composer’s political and moral dilemma. Whilst strict strikes of the baton were used in the rhythmic marching passages, the big, symphonic explosions were tackled with high jumps and grand bodily gestures in the final impacts of the music. From the response of the Colston Hall audience post symphony, this was undoubtedly the seminal work of the night. The percussion articulated the symphony’s build-up in the second and third movements and provided undercurrent rumbles in the slower opening section to match the unusually frequent pedal notes in the piece. The strings often trilled and hovered whilst woodwind solos, notebly from flautist Anna Pyne, poured out over the melody.

The end of the concert left a good impression of the fantastic and intricate orchestration of Shostakovich and the legacy of these Russian masters of composition.

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