The opening of the Galina Vishnevskaya Festival in Kazan

Russian FederationRussian Federation Galina Vishnevskaya FestivalShostakovich: Irina Moreva (soprano), Giorgi Chelidze (bass), Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor), Saydachev Concert Hall, Kazan, 25.9.2019. (GT)

Galina Vishnevskaya Festival in Saydachev Concert Hall

Shostakovich – Symphony No.14, Op.135; Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Taking place on the 113rd birth anniversary of the composer, it was wholly fitting that this concert – which also opened this orchestra’s season – marked the start of the Galina Vishnevskaya Festival here. For me, this was particularly auspicious after hearing the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra in Edinburgh earlier in the week (review click here). It is some three years since the TNSO under Sladkovsky recorded all the symphonies and concertos by Shostakovich – a major contribution to the discography and winning awards from the record industry.

I was not familiar with the two soloists here, but I am sure that the music world will shortly be hearing much more of these two excellent singers. Irina Moreva is currently a soloist at the New Opera Theatre in Moscow and has embraced a wide repertoire from Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, to Micaëla in Carmen. She studied at the Galina Vishnevskaya Singing Centre after studying in her native Magnitogorsk, and has performed at Israeli Opera. The bass Giorgi Chelidze is a member of the Young Artists Programme at the Bolshoi Theatre, and is a soloist at the Tbilisi State Opera.

Hearing this orchestra in a chamber arrangement revealed another aspect of this fine group of musicians, many of them still youthful and having that passion for music similar to youth orchestras exploring new worlds. Performances of Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony are quite infrequent, yet it has long been hailed as among the composer’s masterpieces. The reasons for this apparent neglect are the work’s ostentatious pessimism, the subject of death overwhelms the music, and the vocal songs based on European and Russian poets about anonymous lovers, a prisoner awaiting execution, a poet, a suicide, and a soldier in war, are overwhelmingly dark. The absence of spirituality throughout is dominant and Shostakovich himself said that the work was for him a culmination and that as he felt death approaching. Meanwhile he was polemicizing with those composers who envisioned death as the beginning of something brighter.

Mussorgsky’s ‘Songs and Dances of Death’ were orchestrated by Shostakovich and this helped him find a means of expressing his thoughts and also Britten’s music influenced particularly that of Lorca’s dead lovers in Andalucía sharing the English composer’s interlude of a shimmering seascape from Peter Grimes which Shostakovich heard in 1963. It is notable that both composers shared a preoccupation with death in their last years, albeit the Russian questioned the ‘beauteous serenity’ of the War Requiem. Of course, Shostakovich dedicated his penultimate symphony to his English friend and colleague and Britten conducted the UK premiere of Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony at Aldeburgh.

In this performance, the chamber orchestra revealed even more tautly drawn, yet fine playing, especially from the orchestra leader Alina Yakonina, the cellist Mikhail Grinchuk, and the percussionist Konstantin Kolesnikov who were all outstanding. Overall, it was an excellent chamber ensemble carefully chosen by Sladkovsky. The conductor handled the sensitivity of the songs masterfully giving the singers amazing accompaniment allowing the tragic narrative to linger. In particular, I was impressed by the brief yet terribly moving ‘The Suicide’, showing the composer’s kinship with Mussorgsky. The dramatic ‘scena’ of the third song ‘Lorelei’ was stunningly performed, ‘O Delvig, Delvig!’ was another memorable movement. The ‘refrain’ on the xylophone in ‘On Watch’ was spine-chilling in creating an atmosphere. I was particularly impressed by the soprano. In all this was a very convincing performance of the symphony and wholly appropriate on the composer’s 113rd birthday.

Bringing this concert to a fitting end was the Fifth Symphony, perhaps one of the great symphonies of the 20th century, and the work which instantly made him into the leading Soviet composer in 1937 – a status he never really lost in the world of music. Sladkovsky produced a very fine reading with masterful playing by the large string section, especially the violins; the brass once again showed their outstanding prowess, here again at the top of their game. Venera Porfiryeva’s flute in the deeply tragic Largo was world-class picking up the theme from the strings; the march of the finale with its new theme was superbly enacted. There was the solo trumpet at the climax before a reprise on the strings which Hugh Ottaway called ‘a stroke of genius’ all leading to the terrific ending in D major, here played in a measured and celebratory manner.

This was a tremendous close to superb performances of two of Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies. Following the roar of applause, Sladkovsky reminisced of his association with Shostakovich’s music in St Petersburg as a student.

Gregor Tassie

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