Miaskovsky and Panufnik Rarities Splendidly Served in London

02/02/2014

 Tchaikovsky, Panufnik and Miaskovsky: Bartholomew Lafollette (cello), Melos Sinfonia, Oliver Zeffmann (conductor), Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, Old Street, London, 31.1.2013. (RB)

 Tchaikovsky: Fantasy Overture – Romeo and Juliet
Panufnik: Cello Concerto
Miaskovsky: Symphony No. 27

This was my first concert at LSO St Luke’s, a converted church about a mile north of Liverpool Street Station. The former church makes quite a statement. The main hall is a handsome marriage of a large seemingly-Georgian worship space with wooden floors but otherwise very much a thing of unyielding brick, glass and metal. There is no stage as such and the audience is seated in seven raised rows at the back of the hall with, on this occasion, four ranks of seats in the body of the hall. The concert was very well attended – pretty much capacity.

 The musicians for this orchestra are drawn from those who have just graduated from the UK’s conservatoires together with contingents from the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and the EU Youth Orchestra as well as the South Bank Orchestra and the Southbank Sinfonia. On the night there were about sixty of them with woodwind on a somewhat raised central dais; likewise horns to the left and trombones and tuba to the right.

 The works being played were very much the sort of thing I have been grumbling about missing for years. Here was a programme, the Tchaikovsky aside, that trod the intriguing periphery of the world’s music libraries and that is not a condemnation; far from it. This represents a blast of oxygen into lungs clogged with the accustomed choices. I hope that this will not be the last such concert.

 I suppose that Rome and Juliet was the one concession to ticket sales fears yet it was first on and, what’s more, I did not notice any empty seats after the intermission. In any event the young conductor, Oliver Zeffman instantly established one of his hallmarks which is a meticulous but not pedantic concern with lucid phrasing. The contours of each phrase are given attentive definition and this without disturbing the ebb and flow: caring rather than careful. I was very conscious of this throughout. I have come across more hot-headed approaches to Tchaikovsky – Mravinsky and Bernstein – but this was romantic without being on the wrong side of the line. This made an impressive and musicianly start although the string complement, while silky enough, sounded as if they could have done with another few desks of players. That said, the forces were dramatically thinned down for the Panufnik.

 Next came the Cello Concerto but first a prefatory talk between Donald Macleod of BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week fame and Roxanna Panufnik. Ms Panufnik, herself a very considerable composer, is the daughter of Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) whose centenary falls in 2014. Lady Camilla Panufnik, the composer’s widow was present in the audience. His flight to England after State repression of his musical instincts saw him arriving in the West with a single suitcase and two changes of clothes. The Polish communist authorities reacted as you might expect in the face of such a high profile defection. The details may be different but, like Rachmaninov and Martinů before him, he was never to return to the land of his birth. His years in the UK met considerable success. These included a brief spell as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra during which he directed the premiere of Edmund Rubbra’s Seventh Symphony. He was knighted in January 1991.

 The Cello Concerto (1991) was his last work and was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and premiered with Rostropovich. As the composer’s  daughter explained, while the two movement concerto betrays signs of anxiety Panufnik was unaware of his final illness until after the work was completed. Bartholomew Lafollette, who last year premiered the George Lloyd Cello Concerto, was the soloist. This is a compact work, playing for about 20 minutes. If you know Panufnik from the Sinfonia Sacra — to be played by the LSO later in February — you will know him as a composer of extremely quiet, calming and becalmed music contrasted with episodes of rhythmically splenetic fury. LaFollette led this performance like a high priest to Zeffman’s votary. Here was great inwardness and concentration largely within a range of whispers. This is accommodated amid a score that trades freely with Webernian dissonance as much as Panufnik’s Metasinfonia and Sinfonia Votiva. Despite its eloquence it is amongst his most thorny compositions. That said, there are at least two episodes, one in each movement, where the shadow of his more accessible works passes in earshot. The second movement is the more propulsive of the two, alive with the sort of ricocheting percussive violence we encounter in the central movement of the glorious Sinfonia Elegiaca. This subtle and expressive work made a fitting and substantial overture to the centenary year.

After the interval there was a talk by Clive Marks OBE, a lifelong Miaskovsky enthusiast whose generous support, with others, made this concert possible. He profiled the composer with authority, good humour and an evident love for the music of which there is no shortage though very little of it is performed in the UK.

 The Symphony was Miaskovsky’s last. One might perhaps have expected something with more acid and anger from a three-movement work written in 1949. Miaskovsky, from close to the Shostakovich, Weinberg and Sviridov generation, worked within a range of styles that on the one hand looked backwards to the Russian nationalists such as Balakirev, Borodin and Glazunov and, on the other, is at times tempered with the sort of dissonance one finds in early Schoenberg or in the sometimes thornier complexities of Scriabin. The latter aspect can be heard in his symphonies 2, 4, 10, 13 and 20. His all-conquering Fifth Symphony is passionate and Tchaikovskian and the wartime Symphonies 24 and 25 have an epic-tragic Homeric quality that places them high among the symphonies of the 1940s. Others of his works, such as symphonies 19, 23 and 26, focus on Russian folk sources. Clive Marks spoke with great warmth of the Cello Sonata No. 1 and the Third and Twenty-First Symphonies; the latter being Miaskovsky’s most internationally popular work, alongside the Cello and Violin Concertos.

 Zeffman’s caressing attention to detail was again evident in this 35-minute symphony. Phrasing was a joy to hear. His gift for disentangling a sometimes complex web of thematic activity through weighting and minute attention to acceleration and deceleration produced telling results. Special care was lavished on the plastic sanguine theme that rears up and does not go away throughout the first movement. It returns amid the Russian equivalent of Elgarian nobilmente in the touchingly nostalgic second movement. It sports occasional echoes of starry Rachmaninovian massed violins. The finale has about it an Imperial pomp rather than a brash Soviet blare. Here I thought of the equivalent finales in Glazunov’s symphonies 6 and 8. Once again symphonic cohesion is secured through the reappearance of that indestructible theme from the first movement. It carries the savour of sorrow and triumph. There was a sustained wave of applause from this well-rewarded audience.

 I suppose that for a symphony written in 1949 this is old-fashioned but at this remove in time it hardly matters when it was written. I found it very effective and played it twice – the recordings by Svetlanov (Olympia) and Polyansky (Chandos – review) – by way of preparation before the concert on the long drive down and twice on the drive back. It’s a wonderful work.

 The fact that the programme booklet was free was no obstacle to three excellent essays by Alex Ho, although the political overlay which is applied to the symphony is, I think, dubious. Still, great work as both information and advocacy. I suspect it was finalised at speed given a speckle of typos.

 This was a fine concert and one that for me had been particularly moving. I hope that there will be more.

 It would be wonderful to hear Miaskovsky’s Fifth or Seventeenth symphonies from Zeffman or, if a suitable soloist can be found, the glorious Violin Concerto. Looking further afield I hope that his eye might be caught by other rarely heard works from shadowy neglected shelves: Joseph Marx’s huge and densely lyrical Eine Herbstsymphonie, Alan Hovhaness’s Saint Vartan and Majnun symphonies and Leevi Madetoja’s Tchaikovskian Second Symphony. These are all immensely rewarding works which have not been heard at all, or very rarely indeed, in concert in the UK.

Rob Barnett

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