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Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky Listeners' Diary - 12 February 2007

Two Radio 3 listeners are keeping an online diary throughout The Tchaikovsky Experience.

Rosalind Porter
Rosalind Porter
What a wonderful performance we were able to enjoy of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony from the BBC Philharmonic under Maestro Gianandrea Noseda on Saturday night. I had been looking forward to this such a lot and it certainly lived up to all my expectations. Maestro Noseda's interpretation was impressive in its spaciousness. Wonderful playing from the BBC Philharmonic, in particular the strings and woodwind. Perhaps at times the brass and percussion were a little over-exuberant, I'd have to single out the tam-tam player in this respect, but that may have been an effect of listening at home as I'm sure the balance was just fine in the hall.

Maestro Noseda obviously had no fears about the perceived longeurs in the score, he allowed the music to breathe (especially in the gloriously well played pastoral second movement, beautiful 1st oboe playing at the start and the last movement bristled with tension thanks to his interpretation) and most impressively he made the most of "silence". This is, of course a major element in Tchaikovsky's symphonic writing, but it takes a lot of experience to know how to hold some pauses almost to the limit and thus build up the musical tension. I remain perplexed to understand why this wonderful piece doesn't get more performances in comparison to Tchaikovsky's last 3 symphonies.

Kudos too to Petroc Trelawny who remains one of my favourite presenters, not only for his salient comments on whatever music we are about to hear, but mainly for the simple fact that he also understands the power of silence and allows the listeners at home the chance to savour the applause in the concert hall before he starts speaking. Unlike some of his colleagues who will remain anonymous!

I had to go and fix supper immediately after this marvellous broadcast, but found myself drawn back to the living room by the contrasting sense of repose of Stravinsky's 'Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD annum' and his 'Tres sacrae cantiones'. So it was quite a shock when the 'Three songs from William Shakespeare' started! Such a complete change in mood and style was totally unexpected here. The inimitable voice of Cathy Berberian made their difficulty seem light work and once again, it was fascinating to hear a recording conducted by the composer himself. Despite the use of complex 12-tone compositional techniques, Stravinsky manages, I believe, to communicate the emotional content of Shakespeare's words. I do feel (perhaps controversially) that some of our ambitious younger generation contemporary composers could learn a thing or two by taking time to study Stravinsky's late period vocal writing.

As I write I am trying to listen to 'Iolanta', but I have to admit that I do find it incredibly hard to get to know a new opera simply from a radio broadcast alone. In an ideal world I'd want a DVD or to be following a score and if necessary a libretto in order to try and see how the music relates to the drama and get a grasp of what would be happening on stage. Opera is too much of a visual art-form for me to really succeed on the radio. Of course it is great to be able to hear the music, especially when productions are few and far between of this rarer repertoire. There certainly are some beautiful and dramatic sounding moments in 'Iolanta'. Would it be sacrilegious to Verdi fans and scholars to say that sometimes it has almost a Verdian feel to it, particularly in the sense of dramatic tension that Tchaikovsky generates, even though the sentiments and underlying style are very definitely Russian? With gloriously lyrical Tchaikovskyian orchestral and vocal writing, this opera is wonderful to hear, but something's missing, to get the most out of it. At least that's my own personal opinion. I think some 'Listen Again' is in order, more later and do please let Paul and myself know what you think of the Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky Experience!

Robin Sawers

You are absolutely right about the missing link with opera on radio. Even when I have seen a production of the opera in question I have difficulty in visualising the scene. Particularly when I don't understand the language I'm just left with the music, which is no hardship with Tchaikovsky! Patricia Routledge's commentary was a great help with Vakula the Smith, although having seen the delightful Garsington production of Cherevichki I know the story.

I first saw Iolanta years ago in the form of an excellent Russian film, that would make a great DVD (the ideal recorded form for opera and ballet). I was very moved by the touching story, quite unlike any other opera, and the glorious music especially for the doctor. I can't say it sounded like Verdi to me. Then David Lloyd-Jones, who has a particularly soft spot for Iolanta, conducted the fine Opera North production a few years ago, coupled with The Nutcracker as it was originally performed, and in English so I could understand it!

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