An Eclectic Evening with the Russian Virtuosi of Europe

06/05/2015

 Strauss, Cuéllar, Zhislin, Shostakovich: Sergei Nakariakov (trumpet), Maria Meerovitch (piano), Richard Burrell (guitar), Yuri Zhislin (violin), Russian Virtuosi of Europe/ Yuri Zhislin (director), King’s Place London, 3.5.2015 (CS)

Arturo Cuéllar Fantasy on Russian Themes for trumpet and strings (world premiere)
Richard StraussMetamorphosen for strings TrV.290
Yuri ZhislinSketches for violin, electric guitar and string orchestra (world premiere)
Dmitri Shostakovich – Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings Op.35 (Piano Concerto
No.1)

This performance by ‘Russian Virtuosi of Europe and Guests’ was a concert of varied moods, colours and styles. We began with a classical-jazz-folk ‘fusion’, Arturo Cuéllar’s Fantasy on Russian Themes for trumpet and strings, in which Russian- and Colombian-inspired themes were developed and varied through classical processes and forms, underpinned by diverse rhythms and genres – from salsa dances to Gregorian chant.

It sounds a bit of a hotchpotch but the end result was a vibrant exploration of rhythm and colour, with an air of spontaneity and fun. The first movement was a hypnotically unfolding dance, the sprung rhythms enlivened further by stabbing string chords and percussive pizzicatos. Contrasting textures continually evolved, and there were energised exchanges between the two soloists and the strings. Initially trumpeter Sergei Nakariakov emphasised the edginess of the accents but, even though the material was more motivic than melodic, his solo line never lacked eloquence, and grew increasingly assertive as the movement progressed. Cuéllar was himself at the keyboard; his exuberant playing was as infectiously appealing as his evident high-spirits. The second movement was more subdued as slow, ebbing string chords – with full vibrato employed to evoke the resonant ambience of Gregorian chant – alternated with a gentle trumpet melody and oscillating piano motif. Slow and regular, the trumpet solo was beautifully shaped by Nakariakov, his breathing controlled, the line sustained and direct, creating a mood of spiritual calm. This was swept aside, though, by the driving energy of the final movement which fizzed jazzily, blending irregular Stravinskian rhythms with the exotic harmonies and colours of Ravel.

After the interval, violinist Yuri Zhislin, who led the Russian Virtuosi with precision and clarity in Cuéllar’s exuberant work, stepped into the limelight for the second of the evening’s world premieres: his own Sketches for violin, electric guitar and string orchestra. Zhislin has a strong interest in non-classical music and has previously collaborated with popular music and jazz artists, performing at Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival and making recordings with jazz musicians such as Guy Barker and Tommy Smith. He explained in a programme note, ‘There are certain patterns that I feel particularly emotionally attached to and they travel with me through life. This composition is an attempt to put some of those ‘travel companions’ of mine together. … Being a huge fan of rock music and having failed to fulfil my lifelong ambition to become a rock musician, I decided to introduce an electric guitar into this composition to demonstrate how I see these genres working together’.

What Zhislin terms his ‘little experiment’ is a three-movement work which presents some charming melodic explorations and beguiling harmonies but which ultimately did not make a lasting impact on this listener. The work’s title is apposite, as the music is improvisatory and lacks a strong formal structure. It was a shame, too, that Zhislin’s violin was not amplified as it was rather overwhelmed by Richard Burrell’s electric guitar; perhaps this was why Zhislin chose to present the solo instruments in give-and-take exchanges rather than integrating their voices. Moreover, I felt that Zhislin, while developing some extravagant rhapsodic episodes for his own violin, singing persuasively in the highest realms, did not exploit the full potential of the guitar. That said, the mood was relaxing and there was much to enjoy. Asymmetrical rhythms and ostinato-like string patterns were anchored by strong pizzicatos from cellos and double bass in the opening ‘sketch’, and Burrell’s guitar added a touch of brilliance and gleam. The second vignette sashayed breezily and the strings employed distinctive bowing techniques to add character and definition to the somewhat bland melodic material of the soloists. The final sketch conjured the minimalist rhetoric of Philip Glass et al, with a dash of folk fiddle thrown into the mix.

Each of these ‘up-beat’ premieres was followed by an established chamber ‘classic’ of penetrating depth and expressive power. Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen was heard in its seven-part version, as realised by Rudolf Leopold after a short score in this form was discovered in 1990 (although no one appeared to have informed the programme note writer of this decision). Some have proposed that the score suggests that the composition, for 23 solo strings, was originally planned as a string septet. However, it is difficult for seven voices to conjure the tragic force of the 23-voice composition and, while the members of the Russian Virtuosi played with unfailing intensity and focus, they could not quite convey the score’s searing emotional climaxes. The reduced number of voices did allow for textural fluidity and for individual voices to shine through the intertwining lines. The viola’s initial presentation of the theme was redolent with barely contained anguish and there was sustained beauty in the long lines. Triplets had just the right balance of evenness and emphasis, creating emotive sighs. The double bass provided a secure foundation and enriched the dark tone at points of significance or climax. Striving for concentrated power and passion, though, the ensemble sacrificed some degree of dynamic gradation and architectural clarity. Zhislin was an inspiring, steady leader, however, unassuming and undemonstrative but dependably exact and clear; in the closing homophonic episode I was impressed by how the players responded to his unobtrusive direction, and the vibrato-less concluding bars were elegiacally grave.

Shostakovich’s Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings concluded the programme, and it was a real delight to have another opportunity to enjoy Nakariakov’s mellifluous, astonishingly sweet and well-centred trumpet tone, particularly in the Lento where, muted, the trumpet assumed a gentle, oboe-like reediness in the lower register, warming and blooming as the melody rose. Against the impressionistic cascades of the final movement, which were etched clearly by the string ensemble, the trumpet’s playful, bravura interjections revealed Nakariakov’s flawless technique but never lost their cantabile quality.

Nakariakov was joined by pianist Maria Meerovitch whose crisp, clear piano sound in the propulsive motifs of the opening movement conveyed an appropriate dash of sardonic humour, which was matched by the trumpet’s own intermittent snatches, while the initial piano theme – a modified quotation of the opening of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata – cast more sombre shadows. The piano tends to dominate in this concerto. Meerovitch acknowledged the work’s moments of irony, bitterness and regret but made a convincing case for its fundamental spirit of youthful confidence.

Overall, this was an interesting and engaging performance – but Nakariakov, with his tonal beauty, fluid elegance and magic artistry, as showcased in a final encore for flugelhorn – stole the show.

Claire Seymour

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