Dreaming of a White Christmas? Just a week to go and not a single flake of snow has fallen on London, so there’s no imminent threat of travel chaos at the merest hint of a flurry. Russia is a better bet, so the BBC Symphony Orchestra tugged on snow boots, clambered aboard a troika and braved the blizzard on our behalf. They were captained by Alexander Vedernikov, formerly Chief Conductor at the Bolshoi, now Music Director at the Mikhailovsky in St Petersburg. If you’re charting a route past onion-domed cathedrals and through snow-capped pine forests, you’re best hiring a local.

Alexander Vedernikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Vedernikov
© Marco Borggreve

Our journey began with music from Georgy Svirodov’s film score to The Snowstorm and ended with Tchaikovsky’s bracing snowy exploration, his First Symphony, subtitled “Winter Daydreams”. Sviridov’s music is little known in the west, although it’s much more familiar to Russian audiences, especially as one of his film score themes was used for decades to launch the main evening news programme in the Soviet Union. The Snowstorm is a 1964 film by Vladimir Basov, based on Pushkin’s short story concerning Maria Gavrilovna, who decides to elope with her young officer lover, Vladimir Nikolayevich, but a blizzard intervenes with outlandish results. The nine-movement suite Sviridov arranged in 1974 proved good fun under Vedernikov’s fluid baton strokes. A Troika appears on the horizon, eventually thundering past with full percussion effects, while the Waltz has hints of Khachaturian. The Romance is probably the most famous number, solo violin and strings eventually giving way to a trumpet solo, neatly performed here without a hint of Soviet-style vibrato you can hear on old recordings.

After years of neglect, Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Daydreams” has found a foothold in concert programmes. Its opening movement, subtitled “Dreams of a Winter Journey”, is especially evocative, Michael Cox’s flute solo crisp and bright, like taking the first crunching steps into fresh snowfall. Vedernikov drew a rich string sound from the orchestra. For an opera conductor, he’s quite undemonstrative, almost dour in his approach. But the Scherzo was shaped with wit and the finale was suitably bombastic, although he didn’t entirely let the BBCSO off the leash in the coda.

The evening didn’t fare so well in between these two winter journeys. Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was the sparkling centrepiece but, despite Andrei Korobeinikov’s neat playing, rigid fingers navigating the tricky route with ease, it was an underwhelming performance. The orchestra needs to be as mercurial as the soloist, yet here it sounded stodgy, Variation 6 almost grinding things to a halt. There wasn’t much sense of doom and gloom at the appearance of the Dies irae chant and the slower variations were unduly cautious. Korobeinikov’s encore was a winner, though, Rachmaninov’s rippling G sharp minor prelude like rain trickling down a window pane – there: typically British December weather conditions at last.


***11