The Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra celebrates a unique relationship

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Jennifer Pike (violin), Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra / Jan-Latham-Koenig (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.9.2019. (GT)

Jennifer Pike

BrittenFour Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op.33a
Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending
ShostakovichSuite for Variety Stage Orchestra
Prokofiev – Extracts from Romeo and Juliet, Op.64
Tchaikovsky1812 Overture, Op.49

For me, the best kept secret of this year is the 2019 UK-Russia Year of Music arranged by the governments of Great Britain and the Russian Federation. In a period of deteriorating relations between our two countries – and between the West, in general, and Russia – this year-long celebration offers the opportunity of a little warmth in our bilateral relations. Of course, the extraordinary friendship between two of the twentieth-century’s great composers was an enormous benefit for music exchange fifty years ago. There are several works by both Britten and Shostakovich which emerged from this vodka-fuelled friendship and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony was greatly influenced by Britten. There is too The Poet’s Echo and The Prodigal Son written by Britten. Their friendship started at a London concert by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1960. Two other musicians who shared and benefited from this unique relationship were Peter Pears and Mstislav Rostropovich.

The idea of this year-long event emerged from a conversation between the conductor Jan Latham-Koenig and the UK ambassador to Moscow and thankfully support came from both governments and several generous sponsors, most notably BP and Rosneft. There is an ongoing exchange of musicians and arts administrators between the countries and hopefully this will help to generate successful relations in the coming years.

The most significant project is the formation of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra which was selected by audition mostly from music schools and conservatoires in the UK and Russia. Their Europe-wide tour began in early August in Sochi on the Black Sea, and Edinburgh was the fifth stop. Certainly, the standards of performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland are often as good, as if not better, than some of our professional orchestras, so this concert was looked forward to keenly. Despite the appalling rain outside a large audience welcomed this ensemble of 87 musicians. The presence of so many young women created an initial impression with all the first and second violins comprised entirely of women! The programme revealed that the majority of the strings were Russian, with the brass and wind dominated by British musicians.

With the first bars of ‘Dawn’ from Britten’s Sea Interludes, one was impressed by the wonderfully controlled majesty of tone from the violins. It was a fine introduction with outstanding playing from the flute of Marie Sato in particular. The brass was marvellously effective in evoking the doom-laden bells in ‘Sunday Morning’. In the other interludes, I was not so impressed by the cellos, in comparison with the higher strings, but the double basses (all British) were deeply imposing. The English violinist Jennifer Pike is a regular visitor to Scotland and has already developed a striking career on the world stage. Her articulation and mastery intoning the graceful harmonies of Vaughan Williams’s delightful arrangements of folk tunes in The Lark Ascending was profoundly impressive and was well accompanied by the British conductor.

Shostakovich’s colourful arrangements of four musical pastiches from the Soviet music hall have become popular encores and often appear in their own right, and here the whole orchestra showed their virtuosity with the brass and percussion in particular on top form. The trumpet of Stephen Bachevich and the bass trombone of Alistair Goodwin were particularly stunning.

The six extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet were spectacularly well performed, again the strings led by Margarita Kirakosova were outstanding – as good as any Russian orchestra – and  with excellent solos from different musicians in percussion, woodwind, and brass. It had become obvious that we were hearing some very fine musicians who will surely form the next generation of British and Russian orchestras.

It is many years since I last heard the 1812 Overture – here performed in its orchestral version – but nevertheless it proved a great celebratory close to this excellent concert with the ‘cannon fire’ enacted by a very enthusiastic Uliana Shcherbakova thumping the gran casa magnificently. The orchestra’s tour embraces seven concerts in the UK, and one would hope that this enterprising project will continue in seasons to come. A particular mention must go to the originator and conductor of the orchestra – Jan Lathan-Koenig. His conducting was masterly throughout this enjoyable afternoon.

Gregor Tassie

Leave a Comment