Semyon Bychkov's Tchaikovsky Project "Beloved Friend" continues this week at the Barbican Centre, London. It's an ambitious series connected to a series of recordings with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with concerts taking place in London with the BBC SO and in New York with the New York Philharmonic, next year. The concerts (at least in London) were augmented with a play by Ronald Harwood on the relationship between Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck, the "beloved friend" in question. Major publicity, too: flyers were distributed at the Royal Albert Hall during the Proms, almost guaranteed to get attention. So, why are so many tickets still unsold, even for Monday's concert at the Barbican? Tchaikovsky should sell out, particularly with upmarket stars like Bychkov and Kirill Gerstein, and interesting programmes which feature lesser known but important choices like the original 1879 version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no 2. Although the London music scene is unusually quiet at the moment there doesn't seem to have been much public reaction. Even Friday's concert with the Symphony Pathétique and Rachmaninov The Bells hasn't sold out. It doesn't make much sense, since the first concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 was pretty good.
Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony op 58 is a huge beast, nearly an hour long, and full of dynamic extremes. Inspired by Byron's poem Manfred it tells of a hero confronting supernatural demonic forces in a cosmic struggle that takes place in the Alps. In Byron's time, the Alps symbolized danger, the vastness of nature dwarfing humankind. Schumann's Manfred is Romantic in the true, wild Germanic sense. Tchaikovsky, however. was Russian and a man of the theatre, so Bychkov's approach emphasized the expansiveness that gives the piece context. Bychkov's a great opera conductor, he knows how music can "speak"on its own terms. He created the panoramic backdrop to the drama vividly: generous, sweeping lines suggesting limitless horizons. As the tempo quickened, the orchestra soared upward: searching lines contrasting well with the sudden crashing climax with which the first movement ends. Perhaps this is the moment when Manfred meets his mysterious half sister Astarte. What is the nature of their relationship (bearing in mind Byron's unnatural relationship with his own half sister) ? And, why the mountains? The second movement, marked vivace con spirito, describes a mountain spirit, one of the elementals who haunt Alpine lore. They are fairies, but also signify danger, their elusiveness defying human control. Thus the high violin melody that flies above, and away, from the main orchestral foundation.
The third movement describes the mountain folk, who carve out marginal lives in harsh conditions, yet seem happy as they dance, presumably in pure, open air festivals. They're tough folk and down to earth, while Manfred, though a hero, is rather more quixotic. Like Byron himself, maybe, a towering figure but one with dark complexes. Tolling bells suggest danger. The music descends into a stranger mood, sounds crashing against each other as if the earth itself was imploding,"fire" pouring forth from the rapid rivulets of sound. Manfred fights off the evil spirits who tempt him, but chooses to die on his own terms. What might Tchaikovsky have made of this? The finale was grand, the pace brisk, craggy peaks and descents sharply defined, dizzying figures suggesting turbulence. Not mountain breezes, but perhaps something more demonic. The organ underlined the cosmological nature of Manfred's predicament. Bychkov recently conducted a magnificent Strauss Alpine Symphony. Read my review here - Mordwand ! Bychkov's Manfred Symphony, like his Alpine Symphony were definitely not "tourist trail". Although the drama dissipates at the end of the symphony, textures are more refined, more esoteric, one feels that perhaps Manfred is entering a new frontier, beyond the ken of mankind. Hence details, like the horn calling the hero on, and the dizzying upwards rush towards a serene conclusion that might suggest spiritual sublimation.
This programme began with Kirill Gerstein and the Piano Concerto no 2, in the much longer original version, like Manfred, monumental in its traverse. Maybe audiences take Tchaikovsky - and Bychkov and the BBC SO - for granted and don't realize how much goes into performance at this level of excellence; things like this don't just "happen". So get to Monday's concert if you can, which features "Three faces of Tchaikovsky: the graceful, elegant Serenade with its stunning melodies; the single finished movement of the unfinished Third Piano Concerto, the composer’s last work; and the Dante-inspired tone-poem Francesca de Rimini with its portrayal of a forbidden love" to quote the Barbican ad, and Taneyev's Overture to Oresteia. Perhaps the most intriguing of all three concerts in Bychkov's Beloved Friends Tchaikovsky Project.