Bristol Proms: Brahms vs Tchaikovsky

Last night, two of the most well-known romantic-era composers met in Bristol – well, not exactly.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky are perfect examples of the two forces at work behind music – Brahms representing the clinical force of the brain, using music to resolve patterns and relate solutions; and Tchaikovsky catering to the swell of the heart and the expression of emotion. Reconciling these two sides of the spectrum is at the essence of composition, and was a potentially weighty subject to ponder on the opening night of Bristol Proms 2015.

Violinist Daniel Hope and actor Jonathan McGuinness took to the stage to play the roles of Brahms and Tchaikovsky for an imagined meeting of the two. Along with them came Benny and Eric Kim, Carla Maria Rodriguez, Tatjana Masurenko and Daniel Geiss, forming – with Hope – a world-class sextet that would illuminate the most crucial element: the musical personalities of the two.

Along with performed excerpts from the two composers, the story was told of Brahms and ‘Tchaik’ – their rivalry, their commentary on each other’s works, and their criticism. Hope and McGuinness’ script, assembled also by Jonathan James and Bristol Proms’ Artistic Director Tom Morris, was full of wit, style and imagery (often literally), reminding the assembled audience that the Bristol Proms are a less stuffy trip through the world of classical music.

© SWNS, Jon Rowley
© SWNS, Jon Rowley

Hope and his hand-picked all-star line-up played animatedly and ardently, and visibly enjoyed every minute of the evening, Hope himself taking the role of first violin during the Tchaikovsky pieces, but not for those of Brahms, whose part he was playing as narrator.

Above all was the accessibility of the music, stunningly performed. The setting in the Old Vic’s theatre was intimate, with the standing members of the audience within breathing distance of the players. This was backed up visually by the cameras positioned around and above the stage, the displayed images projected and combined onscreen to enrich the atmosphere.

The heart of the evening was the exposition of two pieces  – Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 (op.111) and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Both four-movement pieces, the two were introduced as a framework for an imagined conversation between the two rivals, with the full first movements aired before the intermission.

The second half of the evening completed both pieces, interspersing the final three movements of each, placing them side by side and inviting the audience to compare and contrast the two composers.

The evening gave the down-to-earth Bristol audience the chance to experience the very heights of the world of chamber music, and to be spoilt for the night under the spell of the finest music and musicians.

And if it has to be chosen, it was Tchaikovsky – or is that McGuinness in his golden blazer? – who won the hearts of the audience, as the players were beckoned back onto the stage for an encore of his third movement; although there will always be a place for Brahms in our heads.

– James Russell

Bristol Proms runs from Monday, July 27 to Saturday, August 1. For a full programme visit: www.bristololdvic.org.uk

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