The Academy Symphony’s Enticing Programme Lives Up to Expectations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky: Academy Symphony Orchestra / Oliver Knussen (conductor), Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London, 26.1.2018. (AS)

Rimsky-Korsakov – Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36

Stravinsky Funeral Song, Op.5; Variations: Aldous Huxley in memoriam; The Firebird – Suite (1945)

London’s major music colleges can be relied upon to produce student orchestras of high quality whose members play with a particular kind of enthusiasm and freshness of approach that you don’t often hear in professional orchestras. With such an interesting programme, and with such a skilled and experienced conductor as Oliver Knussen in charge, this seemed an enticing concert in prospect, and expectations were certainly well realised.

The Russian Easter Festival Overture can become a bit of a bore in the wrong hands, with its pounding, repetitive rhythms, but Knussen showed great sensitivity in introducing very slight and effective variations of basic tempo that did no harm to the shape of the piece but provided stimulating contrast. It was an exciting, taut but expressive reading, and the young players responded with disciplined, clear-cut execution.

For over a century Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, written in 1908 to mark the death of the composer’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, was thought lost; but since its re-discovery in 2015 the piece has been quite well-aired in concert performances and has received at least one recording. Of course, Stravinsky was already in his mid-twenties when he wrote it and had already composed some substantial works, but what stuck this listener at first hearing was its individuality and maturity. The scoring is very skilled and the material is of high quality, and if towards its end there are echoes of Rimsky then for most of the time the piece has no resonances of established Russian romanticism and nor does it pre-echo Stravinsky’s first major work written the next year, the Firebird ballet.

From Funeral Song to the Variations of 1964 is not only a leap forward of 56 years but takes us through two revolutions in Stravinsky’s method of composition after his first ‘Russian’ phase – firstly his adoption of neoclassical styles and then his final conversion to serialism. Variations was his last orchestral work, and its somewhat forbidding, densely constructed content has meant that performances are few and far between.

Such music is of course familiar territory to the composer/conductor Oliver Knussen, but even his clear direction could not prevent a certain lack of definition and some loose ends in the students’ playing. One hoped, with what seemed to be merely wishful thinking, that there would be a second performance of this brief piece. Some wishes do come true, for Knussen did in fact turn to the audience and say they would play it again. This time a few young nerves seemed less on edge, and the result was a better, if not a perfect rendering of the score.

In the 1945 Firebird Suite Knussen made no compromises, driving his players hard with fast tempi and sharply imposed accents, though he relaxed a little in the score’s more lyrical moments. The playing was very good and so the evening ended on a high note.              

 Alan Sanders

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