The second programme in Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s tripartite Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project was an unusual one. The most substantial work, in terms of length, came first, the overture was in the second half and the concerto was a 15-minute torso. Moreover, the trajectory of the concert was a downwards one, beginning in the heavenly sunshine of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and descending, via the murder and revenge of Taneyev’s reworking of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, to hell itself and the fate of Francesca da Rimini in Tchaikovsky’s eponymous symphonic fantasia.

Semyon Bychkov © Sheila Rock
Semyon Bychkov
© Sheila Rock

It was a real treat to hear the Serenade played on the full string section of a symphony orchestra, rather than the smaller forces of chamber orchestras with whom it more habitually tends to reside, and Bychkov took advantage in drawing out some generous, full-bodied string tone from the BBC players. His preference for violins positioned left and right of the podium made for some effective antiphonal interplay that can go unnoticed when the sections sit as one. The Waltz had charm and a subtle flexibility of tempo that would keep anyone attempting to dance to it on their toes, and the Elegy was both tender and heartfelt, here almost belying the large forces involved in the intimacy conveyed. The finale’s tentative opening and gradual build-up to the main tempo were nicely paced and the movement bubbled over with joy and exuberance.

Any chance to hear a Tchaikovsky piano concerto that isn’t No. 1 is a blessing, and following on from the Second in the first concert in this series, Kirill Gerstein gave us the single movement that is all Tchaikovsky completed of his Third. It’s a strange piece, with, one feels, too many themes for its length and it would perhaps be better understood under one of the names Tchaikovsky originally proposed for it: ‘Allegro de concert’ or ‘Konzertstück’. Gerstein gave a sensitive, multifaceted interpretation of a piece that isn’t especially subtle, making it sound more than the sum of its parts and as if to make up for its brevity gave us a generous, beautifully shaped encore of the Méditation from the composer’s 18 Pieces, Op.72.

Tchaikovsky’s pupil Sergei Taneyev was the soloist in the Third Concerto’s first performance and he also made completions of two further movements. It was the cue, perhaps, for including some of his own music in this concert. The Overture he wrote in 1889 for his mammoth opera The Oresteia was eventually replaced in the stage work and became a concert piece in its own right – given that it is nearly 20 minutes in length that was probably the sensible decision. Its full-blown Russian Romanticism – an audible link between Tchaikovsky and the generation of Scriabin and Glazunov – played to Bychkov’s strengths. He and the orchestra captured the ominous march of fate in the opening section, the shrieks of the Furies with searing piccolo trills and the miraculous intercession of the gods which leads to a translucent, opulent wonderland of a close. It made one wish to hear the whole opera one day.

If one great drama were not enough, another followed hot on its heals as we were entreated to ‘abandon all hope’ and sent down to the Second Circle of Hell for Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. The BBC Symphony’s brass snarled and entrapped, and the fiery winds howled before the orchestra’s principal clarinet Richard Hosford introduced Francesca and calmed the infernal flames with a solo of poise and balmy tone. Now the strings were given their moment with a surging account of the love music, before the storms of hell re-emerged to engulf everything in their path – a dramatic end to a striking and surprisingly satisfying concert.