Pavel Kolesnikov brings his exceptional musicianship to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a vehicle for virtuosity that’s full of large-scale drama and quiet intimacy. As a special treat, Pavel himself tells us more about his approach to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece in an exclusive interview during the interval, with BBC Radio 3 presenter Georgia Mann.
To bookend the concerto, two pieces of Sibelius at his most lyrical and romantic: the sunny Dance Intermezzo, instantly reminiscent of Mediterranean light and sounds (castanets included), and the evocative King Christian II Suite. Sibelius is one of conductor Rory Macdonald’s favourite composers and you can read why he loves conducting this piece in his Q&A below.
Thank you for joining us and we hope you enjoy this programme.
Please share your thoughts on the performance on social media, using the hashtag #PhilharmoniaLive.
Header image: Pavel Kolesnikov © Eva Vermandel
Become a Friend
Friends of the Philharmonia support the Orchestra to keep us playing, continuing to create thrilling experiences in music for our audiences around the world. Friends enjoy early access to our online concert series, exclusive access to Green Rooms, Digital Soirees and behind-the-scenes news.
Join today, or give the gift of membership to a loved one, and become a part of the Philharmonia family from as little as £5 per month.
Visit philharmonia.co.uk/friends. Thank you.
Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957): Dance Intermezzo, Op. 45, No. 2 (1904)
As much as Jean Sibelius professed to love his cold native land of Finland, he often sought refuge in warmer, sunnier places.
The process was metaphorical as well as literal. Amid Helsinki’s February gloom in 1904, Sibelius wrote a short orchestral piece for a fundraising event in early March entitled Music for a Scene. Its motto was a line from Heinrich Heine’s poem Fichtenbaum (‘The Pine Tree’): “a fir tree dreams of a palm”.
Sibelius Park, Helsinki, 1924 (public domain)
After the event, Sibelius reimagined the same music for piano. He made it shorter and gave it a more discernible structure suitable for concerts. In 1907, he transferred that piano piece back into orchestral clothing.
The resulting Dance Intermezzo is a short, light image of a northern soul dreaming of the south.
A harp flourish opens the door on a cautious indoor dance, interrupted by heavily laden chords. Soon the music starts to dream of the palm trees referred to by Heine. A Mediterranean style dance strikes up, in a lighthearted mood and seasoned with percussion including tambourine and castanets.
Notes by Andrew Mellor © Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Mellor
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1875, rev. 1888)
- Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito
- Andantino semplice – Prestissimo
- Allegro con fuoco
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was begun in 1874 at the suggestion of pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, whom Tchaikovsky had hoped to impress with the work. Rubinstein’s criticism was harsh, however; he sat silently through a private performance before declaring the concerto to be “banal, clumsy and incompetently written… poorly composed and unplayable”. He even improvised his own mocking parodies of the music. This came as a shock to Tchaikovsky, who was confident that the work was one of his best.
Rubinstein yielded a little on seeing the hurt that he had caused, and he offered to premiere the concerto subject to considerable revisions. This proposal was resisted by Tchaikovsky who, in uncharacteristically defiant mood, declared: “I won’t change a single note”. Eventually Tchaikovsky compromised and made some alterations, including the addition of a more dramatic opening. The work was premiered in Boston in 1875, with Hans von Bülow at the piano. Tchaikovsky’s friend Sergei Taneyev gave the Russian premiere, and eventually Rubinstein himself championed the work, performing it on several occasions. Tchaikovsky further revised the concerto in 1879 and 1888 – 90.
Tchaikovsky, c. 1875 (public domain)
With this work, Tchaikovsky redefined the relationship between soloist and orchestra. Recent examples of the piano concerto by the likes of Chopin had given the soloist free rein over a relatively lightweight ensemble playing a largely subservient role. Tchaikovsky chose instead to exploit the orchestra’s full capabilities, and on occasion the pianist accompanies the orchestra, reversing the conventional roles.
It is possible that Rubinstein was at first overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of ideas produced by Tchaikovsky in this concerto, and by the complexity of its structures. The first movement opens with a majestic call-to-attention from the horns, heralding a magnificent main orchestral theme punctuated by the pianist’s powerful chords, ascending in groups of three from the bottom to the top of the keyboard.
After this introduction comes a Ukrainian folk theme first heard by Tchaikovsky in Kamenka, near Kiev, where it was performed by blind musicians busking in the marketplace. In a conventional concerto, this main theme would be contrasted with a secondary melody, but Tchaikovsky chose to introduce two further themes, one enigmatic and the other more lyrical. There is a stormy central passage, and a final section in which the soloist plays a ‘cadenza’ – dazzling music played without the orchestra.
“... banal, clumsy and incompetently written… poorly composed and unplayable...” Nikolai Rubinstein on the first version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1
The achingly beautiful central movement, in which Tchaikovsky innovatively combined slow movement and ‘scherzo’ (a quick, playful piece), is characterised by a main theme of enchanting simplicity, initially heard on the flute before being taken up by the piano, accompanied by delicate strings reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture, Romeo and Juliet. The thrilling finale is remarkable for Tchaikovsky’s deft manipulation of syncopated rhythms, its thematic material explored by the piano in dialogue with the orchestra, culminating in a climactic final section.
Notes by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld
Jean Sibelius: Suite, King Christian II, Op. 27 (1898)
Sibelius became famous for his symphonies, but as the Dance Intermezzo shows, he was also adept at evoking specific moods in short, simple and direct music.
Drawing on those skills, Sibelius was commissioned to write incidental music for the theatre throughout his career. In 1898 that process started in earnest, when he was asked by his friend the playwright Adolf Paul to provide incidental music to a new play, King Christian II.
The play was an historical drama, telling of the fall of the 16th-century King of Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden and Norway). It has been described as “rambling and bombastic”, but was a huge success when it ran at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki.
Why? Because Finns in 1898 were left in no doubt as to the play’s subtext: the hubris of the Tsar who ruled over Russia (and therefore, Finland). Paul’s image of a spider able to catch copious enemies in its web, but not their souls, proved particularly resonant.
King Christian II (1481 – 1559), unknown artist, Statens Museum for Kunst (public domain)
Sibelius wrote four movements for the opening run in February: ‘Elegy’, ‘Musette’, ‘Minuet’ and ‘Fool’s Song of the Spider’. For a revival in the summer, he added another three: ‘Nocturne’, ‘Serenade’ and ‘Ballade’.
The combined movements, minus the ‘Fool’s Song’ and the ‘Minuet’, were included in a suite assembled later. It would prove one of Sibelius’s first successful exports, appearing in Leipzig in 1899, in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 1900 subscription season and at the 1901 Proms in London.
Perhaps the music proved so popular because of the way it seems to echo our collective history. Sibelius included two bassoons and two clarinets in his score, intending to evoke the sounds of the bagpipes and the chalumeau – a folk instrument that was a forerunner to the clarinet.
The melody of the ‘Musette’ became so popular that it attracted the alternative Finnish lyrics “Minä menen Kämppiin takaisin” (“Now I’m off to the Kamp again”) – a reference to Sibelius’s all-too-regular trips to his favourite drinking establishment, Hotel Kamp.
We hear that effect in the ‘Musette’. This movement was directed to be played by musicians on stage, underneath the window of Dyveke – Christian II’s mistress. Paul had asked Sibelius specifically for an ‘old dance’.
The melody of the ‘Musette’ became so popular that it attracted the alternative Finnish lyrics “Minä menen Kämppiin takaisin” (“Now I’m off to the Kamp again”) – a reference to Sibelius’s all-too-regular trips to his favourite drinking establishment, Hotel Kamp. The tune’s hijacking for satirical effect proves how inspired it was.
The first number, ‘Nocturne’, was originally placed between the play’s first two acts. It combines a long-breathed, falling melody with a sense of searching fortitude that becomes impassioned and, like the Dance Intermezzo, calls on the tambourine.
‘Elegie’ was originally the play’s overture, played behind the curtain. The string body plays music of almost tragic stasis, punctuated by statements of encouragement from the cellos.
‘Serenade’ contains more old-style wind sounds. Its ardent song slips into an elegant evocation of dusk as atmospheric as any lighting cue. In the final ‘Ballade’, instrumental rumblings muster towards something like militaristic protest; a not-so-hidden message that wouldn’t have been missed by patriotic Finns.
Notes by Andrew Mellor © Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Mellor
Rory Macdonald © Robin Clewley
Meet Rory Macdonald
"The Philharmonia has always been one of my favourite orchestras – I love its famously rich string sound and am so looking forward to being surrounded by it on the podium."
This is the first time you’ll be conducting the Philharmonia. What are you looking forward to?
The Philharmonia has always been one of my favourite orchestras – I love its famously rich string sound and am so looking forward to being surrounded by it on the podium. I have been in the audience at some wonderful Philharmonia concerts over the years, ranging from Mahler and Bartók with Esa-Pekka Salonen, to Rachmaninov with Yuri Temirkanov and Prokofiev with Vladimir Ashkenazy.
When do you know you’ve clicked with a new orchestra?
The chemistry between an orchestra and its conductor is like magic – it is completely indefinable. The most important thing, as both conductors and players, is to try and do full justice to the composers’ ideas and wishes.
What is your relationship with tonight’s repertoire?
Sibelius has long been one of my favourite composers and I love conducting the King Christian II Suite, it’s a wonderful piece with all the colour and drama that one finds in his earlier symphonies. I hope that our audience will enjoying the feeling of discovering something new and rare as it’s not performed very often. The short and charming Dance Intermezzo is also a real rarity. I have always loved the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and so enjoyed performing it with our soloist, Pavel Kolesnikov, a few years ago. He brings a beautifully subtle classicism to the work.
"I have really missed that wonderful feeling of experiencing a great performance together with hundreds of other people in a theatre or concert hall – and I hope that soon we will be able to do so again."
This has been a difficult year for culture. What’s been your most memorable musical experience during this time?
This has been an incredibly hard year for everyone and has presented huge challenges for all of us in the arts world. I was very fortunate to conduct Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Frankfurt Opera last autumn. The company built a brand new, Covid-friendly set in just ten days, with all the singers safely separated from each other with plexiglass screens – apart from the Count and Countess who were a couple in real life! To conduct that life-affirming opera during such dark times and after six months without performances was an experience that I will never forget.
We may be looking at a slightly different concert experience for a while. What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?
The restrictions caused by the pandemic create a real opportunity to try new things. A shorter concert format without an interval allows us to focus deeply on the fewer works being presented. I am happy that lots of interesting smaller scale repertoire is now being explored. I’m also excited to see that many orchestras are now experimenting with different types of venue, and making everything available online. However, I still believe that the basic concept of the classical concert works well. I have really missed that wonderful feeling of experiencing a great performance together with hundreds of other people in a theatre or concert hall – and I hope that soon we will be able to do so again.
"I have always loved the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and so enjoyed performing it with our soloist, Pavel Kolesnikov, a few years ago. He brings a beautifully subtle classicism to the work."
Rory Macdonald © Robin Clewley
"... the orchestral performances under Rory Macdonald are dramatically charged, colourful and assured..." Fanfare
Rory Macdonald stands out as one of the most engaging British conductors of his generation, leading stylish performances of a notably wide range of operatic and symphonic repertoire. Recent engagements have included a return to Oper Frankfurt for Le nozze di Figaro, as well as his debut for the Opéra de Tours for Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, and a performance with the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra. This concert marks his debut with the Philharmonia.
Other recent highlights include a return to Gothenburg Opera for Stephen Langridge’s production of Le nozze di Figaro, Romeo Castellucci’s staging of the Mozart Requiem at the Adelaide Festival, and Britten’s Peter Grimes for the Brisbane Festival with Stuart Skelton. He has led many other acclaimed productions of works by Britten, including new productions of Owen Wingrave and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Albert Herring for Glyndebourne; The Turn of the Screw with Mark Padmore at the Vienna Konzerthaus; A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and The Rape of Lucretia at Houston Grand Opera.
On the concert podium Rory’s recent engagements include his debut with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and a return to conduct the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2018/19, he worked with the London Philharmonic, BBC Scottish Symphony, Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal and returned to the Royal Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, Ulster, and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestras.
He also returned to Japan, performing with the Nagoya Philharmonic and Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestras. He conducted the premiere performances of Carl Vine’s Double Piano Concerto with Kathryn Stott and Piers Lane with both the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted the premieres of works by notable composers such as Sir James Macmillan, Sally Beamish and Geoffrey Gordon.
Rory’s discography with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra includes an album with Danny Driver for Hyperion, and with Nicola Benedetti for Decca. His recording of the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 by Thomas Wilson with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was released in 2019 on Linn Records to critical acclaim.
Rory Macdonald studied music at Cambridge University. Whilst there he studied under David Zinman and Jorma Panula at the American Academy of Conducting in Aspen. After graduating, he was appointed assistant conductor to Iván Fischer at the Budapest Festival Orchestra (2001 – 2003), and to Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra (2006 – 2008). He was also a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House (2004 – 2006), where he worked closely with Antonio Pappano on such major projects as the complete Ring cycle.
Pavel Kolesnikov © Eva Vermandel
"Very few pianists of Kolesnikov's generation share his abundance of intelligence, sensitivity, musicality, imagination, and sheer instrumental mastery." Gramophone Magazine
Pavel Kolesnikov became Prize Laureate of the Honens International Piano Competition in 2012, and recital and festival appearances resulting from the Honens Prize include Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, Berlin’s Konzerthaus, the Louvre (Paris), Vancouver Recital Society, La Jolla Music Society, Spoleto Festival USA, Canada’s Ottawa ChamberFest and the Banff Summer Festival.
Pavel has performed with the Philharmonia, the Toronto Symphony and Calgary Philharmonic, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, the Russian National Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Hallé, the BBC Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Scottish, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He has undertaken UK and European tours with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, the Czech National Symphony and Flanders Symphony Orchestras.
Pavel made his BBC Proms debut performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Ilan Volkov. He also joined the BBC Proms at its inaugural event in Australia.
He has given recitals at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, as part of the International Piano Series, and at Kings Place, London. He enjoys collaborating with other musicians, such as performing the Brahms Violin and Viola Sonatas with Lawrence Power, again at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Pavel has also given recitals in South Korea, Japan, Spain, and Germany, and at the La Roque d’Antheron Festival, the Musiq3 Festival in Brussels, and the Aldeburgh Festival. He returns regularly to the Wigmore Hall in London. A major project for Pavel is with the Rosas Dance Company, performing the Bach Goldberg Variations with the company’s founder, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The project has so far been performed in Vienna, Brussels, Montpellier, Brugges and Seville.
London-based Pavel Kolesnikov was born in Siberia into a family of scientists. He studied both the piano and violin for ten years, before concentrating solely on the piano. He has studied at Moscow State Conservatory with Sergey Dorensky, at London’s Royal College of Music with Norma Fisher and at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, Brussels with Maria João Pires, thanks to the generous support of Mr Christopher D Budden, the RCM Scholarship Foundation and Hattori Foundation. Pavel is the recipient of the Milstein Medal, is the RCM Benjamin Britten Piano Fellow, and was a member of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists from 2014 to 2016. He received the Young Talent (piano) Award 2019 from the UK Critics’ Circle.
- Benjamin Marquise Gilmore
- Eugene Lee
- Eunsley Park – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
- Adrián Varela
- Soong Choo
- Lulu Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
- Karin Tilch
- Eleanor Wilkinson
- Victoria Irish
- Annabelle Meare – The Principal Second Violin Chair is endowed by Clare Lager in memory of David Henfrey
- Emily Davis – No. 2 Second Violin Chair is endowed by Nick and Camilla Bishop
- Fiona Cornall – No. 3 Second Violin Chair is endowed anonymously
- Gideon Robinson
- Sophie Cameron
- Nuno Carapina – Chair endowed by Michael Stott
- Jan Regulski
- Paula Clifton-Everest
- Yukiko Ogura – The Principal Viola Chair is endowed by The Tertis Foundation
- William Bender – No. 3 Viola Chair is endowed by Gillian and Lionel Frumkin
- Sylvain Séailles – No. 4 Viola Chair is endowed by Ruth and Henry Amar
- Linda Kidwell – Chair endowed by AgCo Tech Pte Ltd
- Cheremie Hamilton-Miller – The Philharmonia Orchestra Deputy President’s Chair is endowed by The Fernside Trust
- Michael Turner – Chair endowed by Naomi and Christophe Kasolowsky
- Carol Hultmark
- Timothy Walden – The Principal Cello Chair is endowed in memory of Amaryllis Fleming (1925 – 1999) by the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation and Fleming Family and Partners Ltd
- Karen Stephenson – No. 2 Cello Chair is endowed by Jane and Julian Langer
- Richard Birchall
- Deirdre Cooper
- Ella Rundle
- Anne Baker
- Tim Gibbs – The Principal Double Bass Chair is endowed by Sir Sydney and Lady Lipworth in memory of Bertrand Lipworth
- Gareth Sheppard
- Michael Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
- Simon Oliver – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
- Samuel Rice
- Charlotte Ashton – The Principal Flute Chair is endowed by Norbert and Sabine Reis
- June Scott
- Tom Blomfield – The Principal Oboe Chair is endowed by Elizabeth Aitken
- Lauren Weavers
- Mark van de Wiel
- Jordan Black
- Emily Hultmark – The Principal Bassoon Chair is endowed by Penny and Nigel Turnbull
- Dominic Tyler
- Laurence Davies – The Principal Horn Chair is endowed by John and Carol Wates in memory of Dennis Brain
- Kira Doherty – The President’s Chair is endowed by Esa-Pekka Salonen in honour of Sir Sydney Lipworth QC and Lady Lipworth CBE
- Daniel Curzon
- Carsten Williams
- Joel Ashford
- Christian Barraclough – The Principal Trumpet Chair is endowed by Daan and Maggie Knottenbelt
- Robin Totterdell
- Byron Fulcher – The Principal Trombone Chair is endowed by the National Friends Council
- Philip White
- Paul Stoneman
- Peter Fry – The Percussion Section is endowed by Patrick and Sule Dewilde