Beginnings and Endings: the Orion Orchestra at Cadogan Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Alpha & Omega – Shostakovich: Orion Orchestra / Toby Purser (conductor), Cadogan Hall, 9.10.2018. (CS)

Shostakovich's First Symphony, 1935 (oil on canvas), Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow/Bridgeman Images
Shostakovich’s First Symphony, 1935 (oil on canvas)
Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Bridgeman Images

Shostakovich – Symphony No.1 in F minor Op.10; Symphony No.15 in A major Op.141

The opening year of the Orion Orchestra’s three-year ‘first and last’ series, Alpha & Omega, came to its conclusion at Cadogan Hall with a programme comprising Shostakovich’s First and Fifteenth Symphonies.  And, what a good choice of composer with which to bring this first chapter to a close: for all the creative inventiveness which astonished audiences when the First Symphony was premiered in 1926, few could have foreseen the political, social and cultural forces which would nurture, drive and harry Shostakovich and his music towards the Fifteenth, his Op.141, written when he was a sick man and was struggling to continue a lifetime’s battle to make music in the face of political hostility and horror.

With its personnel selected from the London Conservatoires – current students and recent graduates – the Orion Orchestra, which was founded in 2005 by its Artistic Director and conductor Toby Purser, provides welcome reassurance as we look into the blackhole of Brexit, that the future of the nation’s musical life, if not much else, looks rosy.  There was much technical assurance and confident musicianship on display.  Soli and solos were relished, played with finesse and articulate focus.  Purser demonstrated an excellent appreciation of how the parts of the idiosyncratic whole ‘fit’ together, controlling the fluctuations of tempo skilfully; textures were lucid, and the orchestral arguments balanced; pertinent details came effortlessly to the fore.

What I missed, though, were the jolting contrasts of character between the movements, which – particularly in the First Symphony, with its ‘bitty’, broken, unpredictable structure – should make us squirm in our seats.  There was irony here, but it was of the polished Wildean kind.  Shostakovich’s drama is less self-controlled and needs to allow for that touch of grotesquery that borders on coarseness.  We need to feel knocked off our feet as we lurch from crassness to consolation.

The First Symphony was a graduation piece, written when Shostakovich was just 19-years-old.  Alexander Glazunov, then head of Leningrad’s Conservatoire, didn’t get it at all: “I don’t understand anything.  Of course the work shows great talent, but I don’t understand it.”  (quoted in Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered).  The conductor of the 1926 premiere, Nicolai Malko (a professor at the Conservatoire and conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic) had more insight into the work’s import: “It was immediately clear that this … was the vibrant, original, and striking work of a composer with an original approach.”

Purser and the Orion players gave us disciplined, accomplished playing – the virtuoso orchestrations caused not an iota of strain – but I didn’t sense the painful repression of imminent struggle and strife that the symphony surely intimates: to me, it should feel as if all hell might just break loose.

The Allegro ma non troppo had some snide touches of superciliousness: the cellos’ pizzicato certainly conjured arched eyebrows, and there was a general and apt ‘spikiness’ which was balanced by a buoyancy created by uniformly airy bowing in the violins.  The opening of the Adagio con espressione was imbued with a touch of Eastern nasality by the terrific pair of bassoons, and this dryness was alleviated by the lucidity of the flute, but while individual details such as these were compellingly foregrounded, I didn’t always have a clear sense of where the music was heading.  Purser was perhaps a little too hasty in the Allegro impetuoso for his celli and basses were somewhat messy in their opening dash, though an authoritative, tight regime was soon restored.  The Moderato introduction to the final movement began in elegiac darkness – the cor anglais can be trusted to provide a wistful tint of yesteryear – but by the close of the ensuing Allegro vivace, for all the vigour and clarity of the playing, I did not really feel imbued with the spirit of youthful ardour that the work surely encapsulates.

The textural and linear sparseness which had characterised the Orion’s performance of the First Symphony, was as powerfully in evidence, and perhaps more apt given its strangely chamber-like scoring, in the Fifteenth Symphony.  But, the Allegretto needs to be more edgy – a needle niggling at the skin – to ‘set up’ the following three movements, which here were not sufficiently delineated in tone colour and character.  Again, though, Purser had an eye and ear for the details, balancing high and low, grainy and smooth, solo and ensemble with precision and good judgement.  There was lovely treacly playing from the brass at the start of the slow second movement, and Ciaran Carter’s cello solo was one of the highlights of the evening: strong, singing, confidently rising to the top, inviting in the supporting strings and, when reprised, pushing the whole orchestra towards the tutti climax, providing a tremendously compelling sense of direction.  The wonderfully nuanced ‘bending’ of the pitch by the solo trombone hinted at the sort of flexibility which would have lifted the whole performance from noteworthy accomplishment to invigorating creativity.

Purser negotiated the shifts of pulse and shifting temporal relations of the third movement with characteristic composure and the clarinet thumbed its nose with insouciance at the Soviets.  The reference to the fate motif from Wagner’s The Ring was cruelly curtailed by the intrusive clanging of a mobile telephone from the gallery; the musicians and Purser re-composed themselves and re-commenced, subsequently charging towards the brittle skeleton-rattle and death-knelling timpani 5ths that bring the symphony to a close.

Though Purser pertinently observed in his Introductory Note that Shostakovich lived ‘under a regime where every note and every word had the risk of signing his own death warrant’, I didn’t feel this imminent ‘danger’ during these performances.  And, while watching, hearing and admiring the focused, committed, talented young players I found myself reflecting that most of them were probably born after the Wall came down; just a few hours earlier, my guest for the evening had been recalling listening to the premiere of the Symphony which was broadcast on radio.  These are random and not very consequential tangential reflections, really: age, geography, gender etc. are no barrier to musical involvement and communication.  But, for no other composer, perhaps, was the symphony such a painful and glorious compression of internal and external forces: a record of a life indeed – in all its political and personal facets – and as narrated through the Fifteenth Symphony’s musical quotations and self-quotations.  The sterling musicians of the Orion Orchestra are just starting out on their musical careers: I look forward, should the gods permit, to hearing these players perform Shostakovich’s final testimony when they too have a whole life-time to express in music.

The concert had opened with performances by musicians of even ‘greener’ hue.  Poplawski’s Mazurka was confidently despatched by Anna-May (violin) and Leila Khairov (piano), while Danielle Lee (violin) was unruffled by the technical challenges of Rachmaninov’s Romance in D minor Op.6 No.1, in which she was skilfully accompanied by Shaunak Desai.  No doubt these young students at the London Russian Music Academy subsequently enjoyed hearing Shostakovich’s symphonic alpha and omega, as they embark upon their own musical journeys.

Claire Seymour

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