BMW Classics 2016 & 2017: Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninoff

A taste of Russia was on the cards again for our BMW Classics audience in 2016 and 2017! Some pesky rainclouds didn't stop us blasting out Tchaikovksy's 1812 Overture in 2016, though we were glad of better weather for Rachmaninoff in 2017, and Valery Gergiev's last BMW Classics concert with the Orchestra.

BMW Classics 2016: Tchaikovsky

Before 2016's concert had even begun, the London Symphony Chorus, LSO Community Choir and LSO Discovery Choirs, as well as a few additional volunteers, served up a musical surprise for gathering audiences and passers-by. Take a look what happened in this video from the day …

1812 Overture (1880)

Despite composers’ best endeavours, they just can’t tell audiences what to like. Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals was never intended for public consumption; Ravel wasn’t bowled over by his Boléro; even Elgar tired of his Pomp and Circumstance No 1 (of BBC Last Night of the Proms fame). And Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture ‘[was] written without any feeling of love and would therefore probably have little artistic merit’, sighed the composer.

Written at a time of Russian patriotic fervour, it was commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Unfortunately, the dramatic hoped-for first performance never happened. The gunfire in Tchaikovsky's composition proved too impractical, then Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, making a performance of it inappropriate. The premiere finally took place under canvas next to the incomplete cathedral without cannons or bells. But sometimes works take on a life of their own and Tchaikovsky's rousing, musical pyrotechnics have fired (literally) the imagination of Russians and beyond for nearly 140 years.

Swan Lake – Suite (1876, arr Gareth Glyn 2016)

Before Tchaikovsky penned his three balletic masterpieces – Swan LakeSleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892) – music for ballet was rather looked down upon, but Tchaikovsky’s rich orchestral music and talent for writing eminently danceable tunes made it respectable. Swan Lake had a difficult conception, battling ‘artistic differences’ – the dancers complained that the music was much too difficult to dance to, and the original choreography was apparently rather dull and boring. It only became popular after a complete choreography overhaul, too late for Tchaikovsky to witness.

In Gareth Glyn’s arrangement for young musicians and the LSO, you will hear the ballet’s most memorable music, including the famous heart-rending swan theme, played on the oboe, the seductive waltz and the quirky, joyous Dance of the Cygnets with its bassoon accompaniment and (this time) bouncy oboes. Get a feel of what it's like on-stage with this virtual reality clip …

Symphony No 4 in F minor (1877–78)

Do we make our own destiny or are we the victims of the fickle finger of fate? Tchaikovsky was of the latter opinion. ‘We cannot escape our fate, and there was something fatalistic about my meeting with this girl,’ he wrote to his patron and the symphony’s (anonymous) dedicatee, Nadezhda von Meck. 

‘This girl’ was one of his former Moscow Conservatory students, Antonina Milyukova, who was infatuated with him and threatened to kill herself if he didn’t reciprocate. Despite his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky felt forced into a corner and proposed: the inevitably disastrous marriage ensued, ending after just a few short weeks with his own attempted suicide and flight to Switzerland. It is no surprise, then, that with all this turmoil going on in his personal life, his Fourth Symphony, which he was writing at the same time, has a fatalistic edge.

On stage in 2016

Valery Gergiev conductor
Paul Rissmann presenter
LSO On Track Young Musicians
Guildhall School Musicians

Programme notes by Sarah Breeden

BMW Classics 2017: Rachmaninoff

A view of the audience in Trafalgar Square from the back of the stage©

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)

Behzod Abduraimov piano

Take a genius composer who just happens to be a fabulous pianist with unfeasibly large hands, add a catchy tune and hey presto! You get a work of pure brilliance. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody is a set of 24 variations on the last theme from virtuoso Niccolò Paganini's 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. Out of all the variations, number 18 (Andante Cantabile: ‘flowing and songlike’) is the most famous. Unashamedly romantic, it has been described as ‘pure Hollywood’ and has been used countless times in many a weepy.

Rachmaninoff is just one of several composers who have fashioned Paganini’s 24th Caprice into a set of variations. Other composers who have taken up the challenge include Brahms, Hungarian composer Ligeti and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Symphonic Dances (1940, arr Gareth Glyn 2017)

Rachmaninoff obviously felt that his Symphonic Dances were his last ‘hurrah’. Of his final completed work, he said: ‘I don’t know how it happened; it must have been my last spark.’ The ‘spark’ was originally called ‘Fantastic Dances’, with the three movements entitled Noon, Twilight and Midnight, which does suggest the final stages of life. In fact, in each movement he quotes from earlier works, making it a kind of musical aural photo album.

Gareth Glyn arranged this version of the first of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances for LSO On Track young musicians and students from the Guildhall School to play alongside the LSO.

Symphony No 2 in E minor (1906–07)

The disastrous first performance of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in 1897 had long-term repercussions. It was, Rachmaninoff said, ‘the worst day of my life’, causing him to fall into a black depression. It was only the help of a hypnotist and the resounding success of his Second Piano Concerto that tempted him back to the symphony and a consequent period of compositional fertility. Rachmaninoff kept his embryonic symphony a secret and was clearly still a little dazed that he was back in the symphonic saddle once the news was leaked: ‘I have composed a symphony. It’s true!’ he wrote in some astonishment to a friend in 1907. 

Rachmaninoff himself conducted the premiere in St Petersburg in 1908; it was greeted with enthusiasm, won the Glinka Prize of 1,000 roubles in the same year and quickly became a staple of the orchestral repertoire.

On stage in 2017

Valery Gergiev conductor
Behzod Abduraimov piano
Lucy Griffiths presenter
LSO On Track Young Musicians
Guildhall School Musicians

Programme notes by Sarah Breeden

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On Sunday 7 June at 3pm BST, join us on YouTube as we broadcast last year's BMW Classics concert recorded in June 2019 at Trafalgar Square. Head to for more details.

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