Vaughan-Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Walton – Cello Concerto
Harrison Birtwistle – The Triumph of Time
In recent weeks, stormy clouds have been threatening Eastern Europe, so in a world of ever increasing complexity, this concert lends one hope that music can help bring people closer together when everything else seems to fail. So to witness this concert exclusively of music by twentieth-century English composers was an event that helps not only to warm the heart but give hope for the future.
English music does not have a long tradition of performance in Russia before or after the 1917 revolution – there were performances of Purcell in the 1920s in Leningrad, and by the 1930s there were visits by several English musicians, however it was the wartime alliance that witnessed exchanges of music scores and recordings which laid the path for opening up British music to the Russians. In the post-war period, the conductor Nikolay Anosov gave the premieres of many pieces by British composers including Bush, Bantock, Bliss, Britten, Elgar, Ireland, Cyril Scott, Maconchy, Walton, and his son Gennady Rozhdestvensky continued his trailblazing work championing Holst, Vaughan-Williams, Walton and Taverner. In the 1950s, British orchestras toured the USSR and brought their music with them, however with the exception of some pieces by Holst, Britten and Elgar, few have entered the repertoire of the leading Russian orchestras. Of course, the friendship between Britten and Shostakovich generated several compositions including the latter’s 14th Symphony and Britten’s own The Prodigal Son which was dedicated to the Russian.
Since the break-up of the USSR in 1991, the exchange of musical performers and ideas have increased significantly, however this is still very much a one-way process with little travelling back to Russia. The Urals Philharmonic Orchestra impressed me enormously when I heard their concerts as part of the ‘Myaskovsky Dialogues’ in 2021, and despite Russia continuing to be afflicted by the pandemic, the concerts continue at a prodigious pace with this evening entirely devoted to English music under the baton of the 28-year-old London-born Oliver Zeffman and the distinguished German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. Zeffman is a graduate of the Royal College of Music and has studied at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and he has given the Russian premieres of several contemporary British works including Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, George Benjamin’s Lessons and Love in Violence, and Written on Skin (at the Mariinsky Theatre) as well as Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures by Ligeti. In recent seasons Zeffman has worked with orchestras in the US, Japan and widely in Europe. During the lockdown, he collaborated on a video performance including music by composers such as Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Julian Anderson and Nico Muhly in creating an opera-film Eight Songs from Isolation for Apple which was nominated for five Opus-Klassik awards.
The concert programme was exceptionally well chosen offering music from three quite different composers ranging from English folk song to late romanticism and modernism. In the opening of the Vaughan-Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the opening threnody on the strings evoked lamentation, and from the high strings to the deep double basses the ancient songs were brought alive – a fine passage on the solo cello was picked up by a violin solo bringing a wonderful flow of rhythm and harmony. There was magnificent playing through to the final bars, all demonstrating the outstanding virtuosity of this orchestra’s string ensemble.
With the Walton Cello Concerto, the Moderato, opened with the hesitant ‘tick tock’ heard against pizzicato chords in the orchestra and a deeply animated bass tone from the cello of Müller-Schott led to a quiet accompaniment introducing an almost fairy-tale magic with the vibraphone and oscillating trills in the strings; a secondary idea was accompanied by the clock-like chords creating a nuance of serenity. In the second movement (Allegro appassionato) the brisk tempo led to an argument between cello and orchestra, and a relaxed passage with bright woodwind to a dexterously fingered cello passage and enhanced by a bright chirpy cadenza and I am sure that the Russian audience would have found the sounds were somewhat evocative of Prokofiev. In the finale (Tema ed improvvisazioni) a lyrical theme emerged with the idea followed by fine solos from xylophone, vibraphone, celesta and harp with the shimmering harmonies on the strings leading to a multifaceted cadenza and finished excitingly by crashing chords before switching to a passage of beautifully harmonies and of great sunlit beauty in a reflectively thoughtful coda and epilogue. As Muller-Schott has described, the work seems to be evoking ‘the world of nature … the whole atmosphere of Italy. The golden rays of the sun, the different colours of [Ischia’s] light, the blue tones of the sea and the scent of the saltwater can be sensed with rare immediacy … One can speak of Walton in many ways as an “English Impressionist” with a unique ability to express his magic in the voices of the orchestra and the solo instrument.’
That the organisers selected The Triumph of Time by Birtwistle was an exemplary choice for it reflects one of his finest works of the 1970s when the composer was developing his career as a leading avant-garde composer. Birtwistle composed the piece inspired by a wood cutting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder of a funeral procession with festive dancing, romantic couples and people seemingly unaffected by the march of death going on beside them. With what was probably the biggest ensemble of musicians on stage ever seen here in the Sverdlovsk Hall, comprising of four percussion sections, the slim youthful Zeffman with slight and deft movement from his baton introduced the opening bars on a quietly reflective mood. This mood was interrupted by snarls on the expanded percussion before the violins introduced a funeral march with ugly voices from the brass, and the soprano saxophone uttering the recurring three-note theme repeated seven times and another theme on the cor anglais three times. The xylophone made its uniquely colourful contribution in a rather gloomy procession which was at times wistful and often hypnotic against the intermittent calls from the wind groups switching from mockery and burlesque to a quiet passage in the strings interrupted by disturbing bursts from the brass bringing anxiety and menace yet maintaining the movement. The procession of sadness continued with despairing chants from the wind groups and thuds from the percussion – notably by the bongo drums from which there rose tension before closing in a cataclysmic ending, and then a release of a high threnody from the violins and finally the repeated idea from the cor anglais bringing this piece to a memorable close.
This was a remarkable concert – in presenting some of the finest music written by British composers in the last hundred years – it was superbly performed considering the musicians lack of familiarity with this music – but I think it won’t be the last time that these composers will be heard here in the Urals. I am sure that most of the young audience will have had much to talk about afterwards in the cafes and restaurants in Yekaterinburg in the coming days and weeks. This concert was made possible through the UK-Russia Creative Bridge sponsored by the British Council in the UK.