Review: BBC Phil plays the Great Hall
The concert given in the Great Hall on 7 February was the first by the BBC Philharmonic since they were re-appointed as the University’s Orchestra in Residence in December. The large audience proved once again that concerts by a full symphony orchestra are a sure-fire hit: the concert was a sell-out. It featured two substantial works: a clarinet concerto by Edward Cowie entitled Ruskin’s Dreams, and the sixth symphony of Tchaikovsky.
A Lecturer in Music at Lancaster from 1973-1983, Cowie is not just a composer, but also a successful painter, particularly of birds. In his programme notes for the concert, Cowie suggests that his life has some parallels with Ruskin’s: both were painters, both were sufferers from some form of mental illness. These overlaps can surely be of very limited significance. Still, the clarinet concerto was, it seems, inspired by Ruskin’s life and works, and by Lake Coniston, which is where Ruskin spent his later life. Whilst he was at Lancaster in the 1970s, Cowie’s compositions were miniatures, so it came as a surprise to find him writing skilfully for a full symphony orchestra. It’s too soon to know whether Ruskin’s Dreams will enter the regular concert repertoire.
Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony is nicknamed the Pathétique, a name suggested to him by his brother and accepted by the composer, and the music clearly suggests self-pity. There are several possible reasons for this. One is that Tchaikovsky suffered severe personal problems due to his homosexuality and the failure of his marriage. What is more, composing symphonies did not come naturally to Tchaikovsky. A symphony is an extended work for orchestra, usually in several separate and contrasted movements, with a formal structure, particularly for the first movement: this form was established in the days of Haydn and Mozart. Being essentially an emotional composer, Tchaikovsky could not flourish under the constraints imposed by this form. His sixth symphony is not only an expression of his personal misery, but it also seems to echo the spiritual hunger of our age. It is always a popular item on an orchestra’s programme, as it was in the Great Hall. The BBC Phil clearly know the symphony very well and they gave it full romantic value.
The composer conducted the first performance of the symphony in St Petersburg in early October 1893. He made some small revisions for the second performance, planned for later in the month, but before that could take place, Tchaikovsky had unfortunately died. This symphony uses the orchestra’s resources to the full, and the BBC Phil rose to the occasion very well.
Contributed by Martin Widden