Inside The Music: Playing with Fire

Discover more about classical music in our new video series and interactive program notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

From the wilds of the 17th-century Russian empire to the sophistication of Tsarist St Petersburg and the hustle and bustle of interwar London, the opening concert to Colston Hall’s new season is all about the big tunes.

The evening starts with a wonderful musical discovery – the Soviet composer Mykola Lysenko’s soaring overture to his Cossack-themed opera, Taras Bulba. Its memorable theme is the perfect prelude to one of Russian music’s great melodic and virtuosic masterpieces, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – a work that demands great musicality and stamina from its soloist. Finally, William Walton’s thrilling, tumultuous Symphony No. 1 from 1935 was the piece that finally confirmed him as one of Britain’s truly great composers.

10 things you didn’t know about… Tchaikovsky

  • Tchaikovsky actually studied law for nine years before deciding on a career in music.
  • Nadezhda von Meck was Tchaikovsky’s most generous patron, supporting him over 14 years. But he never actually met her.
  • The Russian suffered from debilitating depression his entire life.
  • One of his most famous and enduring works, the 1812 Overture, was composed in just one week.
  • Tchaikovsky almost binned the score to his First Piano Concerto after Nikolai Rubinstein called it ‘fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written’ and ‘beyond rescue’.
  • For years, it was thought Tchaikovsky died of cholera from contaminated water, but the theory today is that he committed suicide by taking arsenic after being caught in flagrante with the nephew of a high-ranking official.
  • Tchaikovsky was from a large family – he had four brothers and one sister.
  • Disney has controversially trademarked the name ‘Princess Aurora’, the lead character in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty and Disney’s cartoon of the same name. To add insult to injury, Disney used large swathes of Tchaikovsky’s music in its 1959 cartoon.
  • Tchaikovsky supplemented his income with work as a music critic. Schumann’s orchestration skills were a target of his invective, an opinion which puzzlingly still sticks today.
  • The composer was convinced his head would fall off while he was conducting, and would often hold it up with one hand while directing the orchestra with the other.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy

VIDEO: Jonathan James

Listen out for… 5 key moments

  1. Lysenko – Taras Bulba Overture

Around a minute into the overture, Lysenko shows his great talent for melody with an inspired, sweeping tune, heavily influenced by Borodin.

  1. Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1

At just over four minutes into the first movement, listen out for sparkling interplay between piano and orchestra, Tchaikovsky employing beautiful woodwind textures to offset the piano’s delicate fingerwork.

  1. The second movement’s calm beginning belies ones of the most technically challenging passages for the pianist – at almost exactly halfway through the 6-minute movement, the piano whips up a whirlwind that seemingly blows in random directions.
  2. Walton – Symphony No. 1

The opening few minutes of the ‘Andante con malinconia’ (Andante with melancholy’) contains a wistful flute solo of breathtaking beauty, setting the tone for the rest of the movement.

  1. The sun emerges from the clouds in the final movement – listen out for the quirky, playful fugue from three minutes in, eventually leading to a joyful climax in the final bars.

Firsts for Tchaikovsky and Walton

Tchaikovsky originally intended to dedicate his 1875 Piano Concerto No. 1 to the pianist, conductor and composer Nikolai Rubinstein. Except that Rubinstein, on playing it through for the first time, hated it. ‘It appeared that concerto was worthless,’ Tchaikovsky wrote in anger, ‘that it was unplayable, that passages were trite, awkward and so clumsy that it was impossible to put them right’. He refused to change even a single note and instead rededicated the piece to composer Sergei Taneyev; the concerto was eventually premiered by pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow in Boston, of all places, where it enjoyed considerable success. And in time, Rubinstein admitted he might have been wrong, withdrew his remarks and even made the work part of his own performing repertoire.

Tchaikovsky bombards the listener with melody after melody throughout the concerto – the first movement features at least three big themes, the famous opening tune disappearing for good almost as quickly as it arrives… But despite the huge symphonic scale of the concerto and considerable technical demands made on the pianist, Tchaikovsky frequently weaves folk music into his textures, including music performed by blind beggars in Kamenka in the Ukraine and popular 19th-century French songs. There’s a traditional flavour to the final movement, too, where Tchaikovsky uses the rhythms of Russian dance to dazzling effect.

William Walton’s First Symphony, finished in 1935, put him firmly on the British music map, with many critics comparing it favourably with Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. A Romantic composer at heart, Walton’s music never entered the realms of the then fashionable atonalism. But he had an original voice, and this originality coupled with unbridled invention shone through every work he wrote, including this symphony, which took the young composer three years to write. It’s a work of staggering richness, from the urgent first movement, reminiscent of the mature Sibelius, to the scurrying second and the third which recalls Elgar at his most contemplative. The finale, the movement that caused Walton the most difficulties, opens with the composer in ceremonial mood, looking forward to his coronation marches. And at its heart is a tightly-wrought fugue of Britten-esque mischief, before the symphony rollicks to a powerful close.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra raises the curtain, however, with the little-known composer Lysenko, whose overture to his opera Taras Bulba captures the wide open spaces of the Russian empire.

Further listening

Walton – Symphony No. 2

Written when Walton had moved to Ischia, the Second Symphony was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society and is seen by some as even taughter and more subtly scored than the First.

Recommended recording: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner (Chandos CHSA5153)

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto

One of Tchaikovsky’s recognized masterpieces with wonderful melodies, the Concerto was considered unplayable when it was first published, but is now one of the most-performed violin concertos in the repertory.

Recommended recording: James Ehnes (violin), Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy (Onyx ONYX4076)

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