“Henry Wood Novelties” sound like a brand of retro sweets on sale in nostalgia confectionary shops. But rather than strawberry laces, Parma violets or sherbet fountains, they form a running innovation at this year’s BBC Proms: works that Sir Henry Wood programmed in his festival which were also UK – or world – premieres. Every piece in this evening’s all-Russian affair, played with vim and vigour to a packed house by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, fitted the “Novelties” tag, culminating in an exhilarating performance of Alexander Glazunov’s Fifth Symphony.

Vladimir Jurowski © Matthias Creutziger
Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

There was also fudge in the BBC’s emporium. While Evelyn Suart, Lady Harcourt, certainly gave the UK premiere of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto at the Proms on 4th October 1900, it wasn’t – as claimed in the season’s marketing – a world premiere. Although Rachmaninov himself only performed the first movement in public (1892) before revising his concerto in 1917, the work’s dedicatee, Alexander Siloti, played the concerto often, notably on an 1898 tour to the United States.

Composers usually revise their work for good reason and their second thoughts are often sharper and more coherent (calling this season’s original version of Sibelius’ Fifth as witness for the defence). Rachmaninov knew what he was doing when he revised his First Concerto following the huge success of his Second and Third. “I have rewritten my First Concerto,” he wrote to a friend. “It is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily.” Listening with the benefit of hindsight, the original has laboured linking passages and the first movement cadenza suffers from ruminative note-spinning.

Alexander Ghindin has made a speciality of performing the original versions of Rachmaninov’s First and Fourth Concertos and although there wasn’t much subtlety to his dynamic range in the first movement, with little below mezzoforte, he displayed more poetry in the Andante than when I’ve previously heard him (also with Jurowski and LPO). His playing in the finale had all the requisite power before unleashing a torrent of notes in the Presto from Rachmaninov’s Moments musicaux as a thrilling encore.

Jurowski’s eye for detail painted the other Russian works in the programme with a rich palette. Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera-ballet Mlada is heard all too rarely. In the five-movement suite, diaphanous flutes and pungent clarinets stole the limelight while the percussion glittered in the Indian Dance, a beguiling miniature straight out of the pages of Scheherazade.

Antoly Lyadov was too lazy to compose anything longer than a miniature, but the three heard here were full of intricacy and deft use of colour. The witch Baba-Yaga, pebble-dashed with xylophone, ground her way across the sky, while woodwinds cackled malevolently in Kikimora. Good old Russian doom and gloom dominated in From the Apocalypse, the LPO strings and winds acting as cantors in long lines echoing Orthodox chants.

A scoop of misinformation concerned Glazunov’s Fifth. “UK premiere, 1987” announced the programme. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Wood only conducted the Scherzo – full of Mendelssohnian charm – making this performance the true Proms premiere. And what a performance! Jurowski has a real feel for the symphony’s architectural structure, pacing it perfectly while maintaining a vice-like grip. He permitted Juliette Bausor enough time for her flute solo in the first movement without letting tension sag.

The Scherzo proved a winner, flecked with glockenspiel and woodwind chatter, while the excellent horns underpinned the Andante as the luxuriant strings swooned over their expansive phrases. The Allegro maestoso finale was joyously dispatched, Jurowski powering through the jaunty syncopations to a triumphant close. Why has it taken 124 years for a full Proms performance? And will we have to wait another century for the next one? The enthusiastic response suggests Glazunov symphonies may not be box office death after all.


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