Bees and bells: even though one might not put these two themes together naturally, there are certainly a number of fantastic musical pieces inspired by them. Tonight put three of them together along with Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto: Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique (bees), Rachmaninov’s The Bells (bells) and Tchaikovksy’s 1812 Overture (bells). Edward Gardner led the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was often terrific, though it was an evening not quite as impressive as I’d hoped.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

First up was Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique, an early orchestral work which grew to be associated with bees, or in particular Maeterlinck’s essay on bees. Though this is disputed, this fanciful inspiration is displayed throughout in the energy and continuous whirling nature of the music. Combined with rich orchestral colours that take their cues from composers such as Dukas and Debussy, it is a wonderful piece that was played beautifully by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There was a modesty to the performance which at times felt too restrained, Gardner perhaps reining in a little too tightly.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells was something rather different. With a large chorus (BBC Symphony Chorus and the Crouch End Festival Chorus), three excellent soloists (Albina Shagimuratova, Stuart Skelton and Mikhail Petrenko) and an orchestra on great form, we were treated to show-stopping music that was impressive to witness live. The modesty that seemed somewhat inhibiting in the performance of the Scherzo Fantastique was nowhere to be found. Instead, Gardner led the orchestra in a convincing and memorable performance full of musical highlights.

The Bells is set to texts by Balmont that are based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry. The four different movements represent very distinct moods (and bells). This was felt most urgently in the contrast between the loud and powerful third movement and the subdued and stunning beginning of the fourth, making for one of the highlights of the evening. Alison Teale’s cor anglais introduced the fourth movement beautifully, with momentum that was carried on by Petrenko. All three soloists were convincing, but it was the magnificent chorus that stole the show, in particular in the third movement.

BBC Symphony Chorus © Chris Christodoulou
BBC Symphony Chorus
© Chris Christodoulou

The set-up for Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto looked strangely out of place on stage – the orchestra’s reduction to a much smaller size meant that the musicians were playing in the middle of the stage, a couple of metres away from the stalls. It is music that would benefit from a smaller, more intimate setting, but the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Baiba Skride’s performance was captivating nevertheless.

In fact, Baiba Skride’s performance was a passionate plea for the piece. A rhythmically very strong musician, her timing was absolutely spot-on throughout and her interactions with Gardner and the orchestra showed a dedication and enjoyment that were a joy to watch. While her tone was beautiful in the whole piece and her playing in the lyrical moments was exquisite, in fact it was in the rawer moments that her strength really showed.

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture ended the evening with a bang. However, the nuances and depth of the other pieces performed this evening were nowhere to be found in this overture. The performance was solid and exciting, and the incorporation of choral parts to the opening and ending of the piece were certainly compelling. But it was the music itself that failed to convince, leaving me with a somewhat dissatisfied feeling, despite an evening that did undoubtedly contain fabulous music-making.

***11