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Inside the Music: Passion’s Peak

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Passion’s Peak as Tchaikovsky tangles with Shakespeare

As autumn well and truly settles in, the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra brings an evening of burnished Russian classics to Bristol. Youthful Prokofiev sits next to a world-weary Rachmaninov, an unhappy exile from post-Revolution Russia, and the ever-troubled Tchaikovsky, trying to make sense of his sexuality through the darkness of Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love. And let’s not forget Musorgsky, whose folk-influenced music laid the foundations from which Russia’s musical identity started at last to flourish.

10 things you didn’t know about…Rachmaninov

  • Rachmaninov’s hands were huge – and are still the largest of any professional pianist in history. He could stretch 12 piano keys with just one hand.
  • Stravinsky referred to the often grumpy composer as ‘six-foot-two of scowl’
  • The chiming bells of the Russian Orthodox were a huge influence on his music – you can hear them in many of his pieces, from the opening of the Piano Concerto No. 2 to several of the piano preludes.
  • Rachmaninov received hypnotherapy to treat his depression after the failure of his First Symphony. The result was the Piano Concerto No. 2, his most famous work.
  • In 1903, Rachmaninov married his cousin, Vesna – something that was still illegal in Russia.
  • The Russian composer is often regarded as the 20th century’s greatest pianist – he performed at Colston Hall in 1929 and again in 1930.
  • Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917, the Revolution marking the ‘end of Russia’ as he saw it. He and his family went on to settle in New York in 1918.
  • Rachmaninov was in such demand for concerts when he moved to America, that he composed that six works between 1918 and 1943.
  • Just a few days before he died, Rachmaninov wrote, ‘Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is never enough for music.’
  • Rachmaninov spent his final years in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, and died there in 1943 at the age of 70. He is buried in Kensico Cemetery, New York.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy on Tchaikovsky

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Mussorgsky’s Night On The Bare Mountain

Listen out for… 5 key moments

Mussorgsky – Night on the Bare Mountain
Three minutes from the end, Musorgsky steadies the ship before gradually ratcheting up the tension again for an explosive finish.

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.4
Around seven minutes into the thrilling first movement, Rachmaninov introduces one of his most beautiful, but brief, moments as a solo flute plays an exotic, eastern-influenced melody soaring above the piano – very reminiscent of the second movement of the famous Piano Concerto No. 2.

Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet
Tchaikovsky sets the tragic scene with around five and a half minutes of sombre music, but then introduces the feuding Capulets and the Montagues with a fast-paced allegro, full of conflict and anger.

Prokofiev – Classical Symphony
The charming second-movement Larghetto, in the style of a stately dance, starts in the 18th-century, but just one minute in, Prokofiev introduces pizzicato in the strings and exotic 20th-century harmonies, which gives a dream-like quality to the movement.

Prokofiev – Classical Symphony
The brief third movement Gavotta is tongue-in-cheek – a lumbering exaggeration of the popular 18th-century dance. Prokofiev is poking fun at wealthy society.

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