Wednesday, 19 December 2007

British Music in St Petersburg

We end our posts for 2007 with another piece from Boydell music editor, Bruce Phillips, pictured here in front of the Glinka Capella.

British music does not travel, it is said. Having been dismissed by a 19th-century German critic as ‘the country without music’, Britain produced a whole generation of fine composers and instrumentalists towards the end of the Victorian era and beyond into the twentieth century, most of whom remain relatively unfamiliar in the concert and recital halls of continental Europe. Hats off then to two intrepid promoters of the cause of British music, Edward Clark and Rudi Eastwood, for dreaming up and bringing to fruition their bold conception of a month-long festival of British music that ran from 31 October until 1 December in St Petersburg. Thirteen concerts, recitals, and other events in a variety of spectacular venues offered the Russian concertgoer a chance to sample a wide spectrum of music from Purcell and Boyce to David Matthews and Michael Finnissy, taking in a tasty smorgasbord of music by such composers as Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, John Tavener, Matthew Taylor, and John Francis Brown.

The roster of performers mixed British and Russian soloists. The orchestras and ensembles were all Russian, taken from the incredibly wide pool of highly talented musicians available in St Petersburg. Sponsorship was raised from several British composer and charitable trusts and foundations, the British Council, British Airways and other sources. One of them was the John Ireland Trust, the Trustees of which were attracted by the idea of having Ireland’s piano concerto played in Russia, quite possibly for the first time since it was written in 1930, by a rising star in the UK pianistic firmament, Tom Poster, under the direction of Rudi Eastwood, a graduate of the St Petersburg conducting class. The orchestra was that of the State Academic Capella and the final concert of the festival took place on Saturday 1 December in their magnificent concert hall, popularly known as the Glinka Capella.

As soon as we heard the magical sounds of Delius’s wonderfully evocative On hearing the first cuckoo in spring we knew that we were not going to be disappointed, and the orchestra negotiated this (to them) unfamiliar music as to the manner born under Rudi Eastwood’s firm control.

Then Tom Poster, fresh from his triumph in the 2007 Scottish International Piano Competition, delivered a fluent account of Ireland’s masterpiece, Eastwood proving well up to the challenge of keeping the orchestra and soloist together, no mean feat in the last movement which was taken at an impressive speed. So great was the audience’s acclaim for this performance that Mr Poster sat down once more and played us Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s charming piano piece Farewell to Stromness, thus ensuring the inclusion of the Master of the Queen’s Musick in the list of composers represented.

St Petersburg is the largest city nearest the Arctic Circle and thus presumably furthest away from the Antarctic. It was perhaps appropriate that the final work should be Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica, the symphony he fashioned from the score he wrote for the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. The plan to show the film at the Dom Kino earlier in the week ran up against technical problems, but happily no such pitfalls attended the excellent performance by the orchestra, complete with wind machine, soprano soloist and chorus of women’s voices.

I also attended a challenging piano recital by the pianist Jonathan Powell which took place in one of the gallery rooms in the house of the painter Isaac Brodsky. One’s eyes were drawn to a magnificent portrait of Chaliapin while one’s ears took in a wide ranging anthology of unfamiliar and technically challenging British piano music from Sorabji to Finnissy all played with supreme assurance by Mr Powell. One’s ears were grateful for the occasional relief provided by music by York Bowen, Frank Bridge, William Baines and John Foulds, and also by Powell’s own attractive piece Barcarola. Only when we returned for a second visit to this fascinating collection of paintings by Brodsky and his contemporaries did we see tucked away the portraits of Lenin and Stalin—Brodsky having been the only artist allowed to portray Lenin in the early days of the Revolution.

At another concert, this time in the hall of the Sheremetev Palace, the Modus Quartet, a fine ensemble of young players from the St Petersburg Conservatoire, played Sir Malcolm Arnold’s second string quartet, and were joined by Tom Poster for a grandiloquent performance of Elgar’s Piano Quintet. The first work in the programme was Tavener’s settings of poems by Anna Akhmatova for soprano and cello. Only after I had returned to the UK and studied the excellent Companion Guide to St Petersburg by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes did I realise that Akhmatova had lived there for many years after the Revolution.

Audiences at all the events were good, and their appreciation of the chance to hear so much unfamiliar music was palpable. There are plans to repeat the festival next year, and one can only applaud all those involved, either as administrators or performers, for having successfully brought off this deeply impressive event. More information can be found at their website.

It only remains for us to wish you a very happy Christmas and a peaceful 2008. We will begin the New Year with something about Lord Berners.

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