We have all played the game of planning imaginary dinner parties where the guest include diverse guest unlikely to have ever met in reality. This concert made the unlikely pairing of the tortured and sensitive Tchaikovsky with the stalwart suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth. In fact, they did meet in Leipzig in 1888, and he praised her as a “very serious and gifted composer”. Smyth studied in Leipzig being strongly influenced by German models such as Brahms. She overcame the objections of Major General father, displaying the strength of purpose she manifested in her composing and political life.

Pavel Kolesnikov
© Eva Vermandel

In his orchestral music, Tchaikovsky comprehends empassioned emotionalism with classical balance, folk idioms and the theatrical splendour, drama and grace of his stage works. It was grace and elegance that were paramount in Pavel Kolesnikov's performance of the Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor. Too often regarded as a pianistic warhorse, his performance made the work sound new-minted, not simply by his artistry but by the version he used. Although billed in advance as the 'original version' of 1874-5, this was Tchaikovsky's own revision of 1879, which took into account Anton Rubinstein's scathing criticism and more constructive suggestions by other pianists as to its playablity. In his revision the composer reworked the piano part and restructured the finale. The most noticeable difference is the original soloist's arpeggios over the lyical string melody rather than the thumping opening chords familar from the final revised version.

Kolesnikov's fleet fingers and crystalline articulation set the tone for whole performance, with his long sensitive hands achieving limpidity without sacrificing bravura pyrotechnics. In close rapport with Martyn Brabbins, replacing an indisposed Sakari Oramo, playing was characterised by an almost balletic poise and line, especially in the interplay between piano, and woodwind and string soloists in the second movement. His brilliantly lustrous playing in the finale achieved glittering splendour rather than overemphatic steely power. Both in his invigorating playing and the use of the earlier version, Kolesnikov cleaned off the accumulated varnish of tradition to reveal the composer's original vision.

From Imperial Russia to High Anglican England may seem a long journey but Ethel Smyth's Mass in D, was composed while staying with the Empress Eugénie, widow of Napoleon III, and its first run through was given at Balmoral while guests of Queen Victoria. Its first performance was given in the Royal Albert in 1893, with no repeat until 1924 and only sporadically ever since.

Smyth wrote her Mass under the influence of High Church friends but, instead of the rarefied ritualism of that tradition, the work is more the 'Church Militant' in tune with the composer's forceful personality. After a hushed almost reverential opening to the Kyrie, the extended Credo for large chorus with interjections from the four soloists strides forwards in an almost martial manner. Unlike the existentialist striving of Beethoven's Missa solemnis in the same key, Smyth exhibits the confident gusto of a believer, clad in a sensible tweed suit and stout brogues treading unassailably through the mire of doubt and darkness.

The shorter inner movements featured Cardiff Singer of the World winner, Catriona Morison, notable in the grave rapt Sanctus, while Lucy Crowe sounded celestial in the Benedictus.

In conformance with Anglican tradition, the Mass ends with the Gloria and Smyth gives full rein to the panoply of orchestral colour and multi-part choral writing. Without letting the exhuberant pace slacken, Brabbins secured full-throated singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus through to the final affirmative Amen, given with tremendous force. Smyth's life and beliefs may have been idiosyncratic, to say the least, but this Mass is a fitting memorial to a rare spirit, who chose to have her ashes scattered on a Woking golf course.