This was a terrific evening in the concert hall, with the LPO on top form, Jurowski as subtly persuasive an interpreter as ever and a fascinating trio of works by living composers that bore the tag line 'post-Soviet tapestries'. The evening's soloist Mischa Maisky had wondered a few weeks back if Londoners would turn out in numbers to hear three not very well-known 'Soviet' works: he need not have worried. The Festival Hall, if not packed to the rafters, was comfortably full and made up in enthusiasm for the gaps here and there in the auditorium. And those who were not there missed a treat!
The appetiser was Giya Kancheli's orchestral soundscape of 1992, Another Step, a fourteen minute work (scored for large orchestra and offstage soloists) that explores (in Kancheli's own words) “the eternal problem of the relationship between sound and silence”. Dramatic, staccato orchestral chords played fortissimo introduce the work, interspersed immediately with soft, dreamy string textures that hang in the air. We hear a repeated fragment of melody tapped out col legno by an offstage viola: this disappears into a wash of orchestral sound to be replaced by a distant fragmentary folk melody played on a hurdy gurdy or perhaps a prepared piano. The effect is that melodic fragments are everywhere, sometimes drowned in explosions of orchestral sound, sometimes suddenly audible as plaintive statements of their own. Does the piece go anywhere? I am not sure that it does, and some of the effects now come across as a shade generic: but Another Step is a coherent and perfectly competent exercise for orchestra and proved to be an ideal hors d'oeuvre for what was to follow.
And this was the UK premiere of Benjamin Yusupov's cello concerto, played by Maisky (to whom it was dedicated) in the presence of the composer. It is an entertaining, completely approachable and vibrant piece that never threatens to outstay its welcome and that explores to the full both the virtuoso and the melodic qualities of the instrument (and instrumentalist) for which it was written, just over a year ago.
Maisky clearly knows and feels the work through and through (although like Sviatoslav Richter often did, he had a score discreetly propped at his feet) and he gave a hugely persuasive account of some original and engaging music. It is a through-composed piece of around 25 minutes duration, the opening section consisting of rapt, melodic musings played pp by the soloist against a busy orchestral background. Maisky's cello sound here was exquisite, a filigree of slowly descending minor scale motifs, gradually opening out into some old-fashioned romantic passagework above full orchestra. Yusupov then reduces the temperature, giving the cello a catchy and haunting repeated phrase (in waltz time) that might well be marked alla grazia –for that is exactly how Maisky played it, with classical delicacy and grace. But the orchestral dynamics, and the technical demands on the soloist, increase inexorably until we reach what seems to me to be the centrepiece of the work, an extraordinary scherzo that starts out in straightforward Spanish gypsy idiom, gradually morphing into a Shostakovich-like mad and wild dance that degenerates at times into controlled and always carefully organised cacophony. Apart from Maisky, who was clearly delighted at being taxed to his physical limits here and who revelled in the energy and sheer physicality of about nine minutes of exhilarating music, it was fascinating to watch the orchestral pianist in this section, constantly covering the piano strings with paper, cloth and obtaining all sorts of percussive and weird and wonderful effects. But the orgy of sound peters out and the work ends quietly, in a coda that restores beauty of sound and symmetry to the relationship between soloist and surrounding orchestral forces.
Whether or not the programme element really works – the concerto as a depiction of the artist's struggle with society, with terror, with his own means of self-expression – the inspiring thing to me was the melodic invention of the work as a whole, the beauty of the orchestral textures and the 'instinctive' naturalness of Yusupov's score. There was nothing overblown or contrived here, soloist and players simply seemed to know exactly what they were doing and gave the work a straightforward run – although, to be fair, it seemed to me that scrupulous orchestral preparation and attentiveness to Jurowski's beat made some complex passages seem more straightforward than they probably are. I can't wait to hear it again on some future occasion.
And so to the biggest, oldest, most established piece on the programme, Valentyn Silvestrov's Symphony 5, composed between 1980 and 1982. This is a single movement 45 minute work that has attracted a bit of a cult following. Described variously as “the fulfilment of [Silvestrov’s] middle style” and as “almost a post-symphony”, it seems to me to set out to do on a much larger and more organised scale what Kancheli attempts in Another Step – to explore the whole nature of musical experience, discarding some components of the classical symphonic structure but very definitely retaining others, and combining them in constantly evolving ways. And so the first, surface impression of Silvestrov's piece is just how classical and conventional it is. Accessible melody abounds.
The work is divided loosely into seven 'movements', from an opening and fairly grand Maestoso to a concluding Andante that is a long diminuendo into silence. The orchestration is superb – constant, subtle variations in colour and dynamics, nowhere more effectively deployed than when endlessly repeated string phrases are augmented by woodwind, echoed by brass and punctured discordantly by descending passages on two harps. The Adagietto of Mahler's 5th Symphony is consciously and constantly echoed here, but as I listened to the orchestral texture I found myself thinking also not only of Tippett (highlighted as an influence on Silvestrov by David Fanning in his excellent programme notes) but more frequently of Benjamin Britten, who so often managed to capture the sweetness of simple melody and couple it with the astringency of orchestral commentary. In the central Andante section of the Silvestrov there is an upward string figuration, full of warm harmony, that is a dead ringer for the orchestral interlude in Britten’s Death in Venice, written a decade earlier, as Aschenbach first glides over the water towards La Serenissima.
So one has to say that there is much in Silvestrov's work that is derivative. On the other hand, this does not really matter if there is also much that is original – and there undoubtedly is. The effect of Symphony 5 is that time is being played with – both standing still, as melodic phrases are repeated, apparently going nowhere, and then going alternately both backwards and forwards as reminiscent motifs find their way into the score. It could be a recipe for stasis, but the material is too well and skilfully organised for that. Jurowski refers (in the LPO April podcast) to the similarity between the visual effects of the films of Andrej Tarkovsky and the aural effects of Silvestrov's symphonic world. The mixture of past, present and future and the constant existence of ‘overlaps’ between them is the common feature here.
Jurowski has conducted this symphony before and clearly relishes it. He conjured up wonderful sound from the LPO, biting and incisive (and rhythmically precise) where needed, lush and contemplative in the quiet string passages that dominate the score. Once again an orchestral piano features prominently: it acts as a reminder that the work, although arrestingly original, is not that modern and certainly not modernist. Some of the lusher passages could certainly be film music (and Silvestrov has been used in French cinema): but a symphony written in Kiev in 1980 has a different sort of integrity, both in its sources of derivation and in its means of expression. It came across as a substantial piece of music-making.
This was a noteworthy first public performance in the UK. Full marks to the LPO and to Jurowski for scheduling this programme and for counting on us to turn up. Those who did, will not forget it!
Photo Credits: Jurowski by Roman Gontcharov, Maisky by Dan Porges
Interview: We chat to Mischa Maisky ahead of his concert with the LPO
Concert review: Lily and Mischa Maisky at the Edinburgh International Festival
Concert review: Jurowski and the LPO open their current season with a varied programme
CD review: Giya Kancheli's Styx