Prom 25: Tchaikovsky, Sibelius & Weinberg

100 years after his birth, Mieczyslaw Weinberg received his Proms debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance of his Cello Concerto in C minor.

A Polish Jew, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union in 1939. Like his close friend Dmitri Shostakovich, who pleaded with the head of the KGB for Weinberg’s release during the height of Stalin’s Jewish purges in 1953, the composer’s creativity was constrained by the anti-Formalist campaigns. Though conceived in 1948, Weinberg only premiered his Cello Concerto in C Minor in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death.

Cellist Sol Gabetta proved a persuasive proponent of the concerto. In a shy, ruminative opening, she lucidly outlined a lonely theme amid spare orchestral accompaniment – her vibrato expressive but never exaggerated. During more intense moments, she seemed energised by other players, jerking her head to Eastern scales and the propulsive rhythms of Jewish folk. Though some passages felt subdued – perhaps the result of the Soviet Union’s strictures – the concerto warranted its London premiere.

This was also Dalia Stasevska’s first concert as the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor, the first woman to hold the post. The Ukrainian-born Finn began with the populist processional pageantry of Sibelius’ 1893 Karelia suite, named after a contested region on the border of Finland and Russia. The suite showcased Sibelius’ ear for a good tune, Stasevska’s treatment of the grand swelling strings of its slow second movement illuminating his fondness for Russian Romanticism.

Composed the same year as Karelia, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is shrouded in rumour and speculation, from the plausible to the scurrilous. Among the most enduring theories is that Tchaikovsky wrote the symphony as a premonition of his death: he died of cholera nine days after its premiere. The BBCSO’s performance belied this suggestion, stressing instead the music’s vibrancy: what Tchaikovsky called its “thirst for activity”. This rendered the moods of the opening movements ill-defined, yet it also emphasised the symphony’s radical structure. The third movement’s scherzo was so rollickingly triumphant that the audience applauded as if the concert were over, only to be confronted with one of the bleakest finales in the classical canon. As strings slipped into stillness, Dalia Stasevska held the Royal Albert Hall in solemn silence, ending not with a bang but a dying whisper.


Featured image: Chris Christodoulou.

Sam Taylor is an arts journalist who recently graduated with an English degree from UCL. He writes film and music reviews for the Financial Times, conducts interviews for The Cusp and edits London Student’s Review section. He has also been published by Jazzwise and The Independent and plays lead guitar in alt-rock band Where’s John?

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