Friday, 16 November 2018

Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican

Martyn Brabbins & the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Photo BBC)
Martyn Brabbins & the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Photo BBC)
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (first revised version, 1879), Ethel Smyth Mass in D; Pavel Kolesnikov, Lucy Crowe, Catriona Morison, Ben Johnson, Duncan Rock, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Barbican Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Smyth's large scale and rarely performed mass paired with a rare earlier version of the concerto by her contemporary Tchaikovsky

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor Sakari Oramo planned to open the orchestra's 2018/19 season at the Barbican in style on 15 November 2018 with a concert which paired the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor (as opposed to the better known 1894 version) with Ethel Smyth's Mass in D. It was not to be as illness forced Oramo to withdraw, thankfully Martyn Brabbins stood in at the last moment and, amazingly, conducted the programme unchanged (despite Brabbins being also engaged with the new production of Britten's War Requiem which debuts at English National Opera tonight, 16 November 2018).

So at the Barbican last night (15 November 2018), Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor with soloist Pavel Kolesnikov, and Ethel Smyth's Mass in D with soloists Lucy Crowe, Catriona Morison, Ben Johnson and Duncan Rock, and the BBC Symphony Chorus, chorus master Neil Ferris. The BBC Symphony Chorus is currently celebrating its 90th birthday and Smyth's mass, with its huge chorus part, was a very apt way to begin the season.

Pavel Kolesnikov (Photo ©Eva Vermandel)
Pavel Kolesnikov (Photo ©Eva Vermandel)
Tchaikovsky wrote his first piano concerto in 1874-75, and when he played it to Nikolai Rubinstein, Rubinstein was famously rude about the piano writing. Tchaikovsky's piano playing was only adequate, he was not a piano virtuoso, and it is clear that the solo piano part was adjusted at various times. Tchaikovsky published the original version in 1875, and then a revised version in 1879. The well-known version of the concerto is based on the version published in 1894, after Tchaikovsky's death, and during Tchaikovsky's lifetime, it was the 1879 version which the composer performed. The 1894 revisions seem to have been the work of his pupil Alexander Siloti, and they are changes which moved the concerto closer to the big, bold combative model.

From the opening, the different between 1879 and 1894 was apparent as Pavel Kolesnikov rolled the opening piano chords in a very Schumanesque manner, rather than the familiar big, bold approach, though I felt that the orchestral contribution felt a bit matter of fact. But things gradually took off as the solo part became more bravura and the orchestral contributions followed suit. The changes, though, go beyond a few rolled piano chords and the way the piano kept holding things up for poetic meditations felt new. This was very much a sense of seeing the familiar work through a different lens, partly because of Kolesnikov's desire to give a non-hackneyed account of the solo part. His playing had a classical restraint, with moments of pure poetry yet the staggering bravura was there too. The slow movement opened with the lovely combination of pellucid flute and lilting piano, textures were transparent and rather spacious, with a wonderful skittishness in the faster sections. The finale (which includes significant passage, not in the later version), was all impulsive excitement, with crisp rhythms and dazzling fingerwork, and Brabbins and Kolesnikov really whipped up the excitement at the end.

This was a performance in which Kolesnikov really invested in the idea of re-inventing Tchaikovsky's concerto, making it more poetic and more quirkily idiomatic and less the standard piano virtuoso barn-stormer, and I think the work is rather better for it. Kolesnikov gave us an encore afterwards, and then in the second half slipped discreetly into the audience with friends to listen to the Smyth mass.


Ethel Smyth met Tchaikovsky in 1888, when she was living in Leipzig and he was visiting the city. She described him thus 'But of all the composers I have known the most delightful as a personality was Tchaikovsky', whilst he said of her 'Miss Smyth is one of the comparatively few women composers who may be seriously reckoned among the workers in this sphere of music'.

Smyth's Mass in D was one of her earliest large-scale works and it premiered in 1891, then languished until the 1920s when she revised it for performance in 1924. Despite performances by Adrian Boult and Thomas Beecham, the work has never really established itself. Smyth's music still suffers for comparision with what it is not so that her masterpiece, The Wreckers (1906) is often compared detrimentally to Peter Grimes (which premiered 40 years later). Similarly, with the Mass in D, it is easy to complain of the Brahmsian influences, though it certainly is no clone of the Deutsches Requiem, and to point out that it lacks the theatricality of Verdi's Requiem, without ever listening to the work in its own right.

Smyth was German trained, studying initially at the Leipzig Conservatoire and then privately with Heinrich von Herzobengerg (a disciple of Brahms'), espousing a culture which placed Brahms at the pinnacle and admired Schumann (whose widow she knew) and Mendelssohn (whose sister Fanny she knew). And, unlike composers like Stanford and Parry who returned to the UK after training in Germany, Smyth kept up her continental connections and her career was very much a European one until the start of the First World War (at the time war was declared she had three different operatic performances planned in European cities).

The Mass in D might have been premiered at the Royal Albert Hall, but its heart lies in central Europe with a sense of serious intent and a love of counterpoint. It completely lacks the melodic ear worms which Brahms brings to his requiem, instead, Smyth gives us sober seriousness of purpose mixed in with moments of great theatricality. The work that it reminded me of most, albeit in a distant way, was Beethoven's mass settings, there is a similar seriousness of purpose and a reluctance to write showy music.

Despite having four soloists, it is the chorus which plays the most significant role with huge unisons, big fugal choruses and plenty of contrapuntal writing, something supported by the orchestra and sometimes with the orchestra adding extra colour. The results are impressive, if not always loveable, you feel that sometimes Smyth was trying too hard to be serious and that she should have let a bit of her theatrical personality in. But I have to be careful, because I am again castigating the music for what it is not, rather than loving it for itself.

The Kyrie and the Credo are big choral movements, with soloistic moments bringing a sense of different scale and another colour. And then things change with the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei with focus falling more on the soloists. Mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison was beautifully considered in the Sanctus, supported at first by the orchestral brass, and then by the female chorus and orchestral strings. For the Benedictus, it was the turn of soprano Lucy Crowe, beautifully radiant and lyrically intense. Tenor Ben Johnson's contribution to the Agnus Dei brought out the anxious intensity of the music. Smyth kept the Gloria till last (a valid liturgical option in the Book of Common Prayer), opening it exhuberantly, and yet again the soloists provided moments of pause with a serious lyric duet for Catriona Morison and baritone Duncan Rock. Here we could see quite clearly Smyth's method, with rather serious almost plain vocal lines surrounded by striking orchestral contributions weaving round them. At the end of the movement the solo tenor and mezzo-soprano contributions were almost mystical, and then we concluded with a huge fugal chorus.

Smyth's Mass in D will never be a common work, its combination of the sober serious and the theatrical is perhaps an awkward one. But more importantly, it requires a chorus willing and able to learn the vast swathes of complex choral writing and we must be greatful to the BBC and the BBC Symphony Chorus for making the work a very apt celebration of the chorus's anniversary. I would not have chosen to hear it at the Barbican, somewhere with a more expansive acoustic would be desirable, but this performance brought out the seriousness of purpose and rather distinctive character of Smyth's mass.


The concert is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall  (★★★½)  - concert review
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  • In Remembrance - choral discs commemorating the centenary of the Armistice  - CD review
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  • A Mahler Piano Series: Echoes of the East  (★★★½) - concert review
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  • Lincolnshire Remembers: Britten's War Requiem from Lincoln Cathedral - concert review
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