United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (12) – Panufnik, Shostakovich: I, CULTURE Orchestra, / Kirill Karabits (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 17.08.2014 (SRT)
Andrzej Panufnik: Sinfonia elegiaca
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad”
The I, CULTURE orchestra is comprised of talented young musicians from Poland and the Eastern Partnership member states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) and tonight they were conducted by a Ukrainian. Classical music programming is normally done years in advance and, when Jonathan Mills invited the I, CULTURE orchestra to the Edinburgh Festival, they must have seemed like an ideal choice to play two eastern European symphonies on the subject of war (the 2014 Festival’s theme). Panufnik’s Sinfonia elegiaca is the composer’s anti-war protest and Shostakovich’s seventh symphony was famously forged in the siege of Leningrad, during the darkest days of the Second World War.
Since this concert was programmed, though, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have cast an enormous and still undefined shadow over the West’s relations with that region and between the states of the former Soviet bloc themselves. How must they have felt, then, playing what is surely the most totemic Soviet work of them all? Now isn’t the place to go into the true “meaning” of the Leningrad symphony, but its place in the cultural consciousness of the Russian people is beyond dispute, and I wondered if that baggage, and the contemporary events, would have an impact on the performance itself.
In the event, I found the performance thrilling, perhaps the most exciting of this symphony that I’ve been lucky enough to come across. So much of Shostakovich can be interpreted in an infinity of different ways, and some performances (as in Andris Nelsons’ CBSO performance) can point up the banality of this music, but Karabits, a galvanising force on the podium, chose to milk every available ounce of drama out of the piece, controlling the ebb and flow of the tension to a masterly degree, culminating in a daringly slow but tremendously powerful final peroration. The players matched him brilliantly, with countless little touches flagging up the work’s colour. The “invasion” theme of the first movement has plenty of opportunities for this, of course, and rather than downplay them the orchestra threw themselves into them, such as the jazzy swagger of the three muted brass, or the arrogant slur of the violins when they first get to play the theme. The second movement was full of understated quirkiness, while the strings surged with throbbing nostalgia and loss in the immensely powerful Adagio.
The sound of the orchestra is really distinctive too, with sensuous beauty in the strings and bell-like clarity from the winds and brass. They don’t always go for blend, though, and sometimes the contrast between these two blocks can be very exciting, such as in Panufnik’s appealing Sinfonia elegiaca which went for reflective beauty in its outer movements and powerful drama in the middle. In fact, the arresting sharpness of their attack in that middle section was very exciting, taken with impressive precision.
This was the orchestra’s UK debut and, while they might have left the politics in the dressing room, their tremendous musicianship means that I certainly hope we’ll be seeing them again. The concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.