The Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra are terrific ambassadors for the Ukraine at Berlin’s Musikfest

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2022 [7] – Skoryk, Lysenko, Karamanov, Sibelius: Tamara Stefanovich (pianist), Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra / Hobart Earle (conductor). Philharmonie Hall, 6.9.2022, livestreamed on Digital Concert Hall. (GT)

Hobart Earle conducts the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra © Fabian Schellhorn

SkorykDytynstvo (Childhood)
LysenkoElegy, Op.41, No.3 (transcribed by Volodymyr Sirenko and Hobart Earle)
Karamanov – Piano Concerto No.3 ‘Ave Maria’ (1968)
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43

Berlin’s Musikfest continues to surprise and intrigue with some revelatory concerts in this year’s programme presented by the world’s finest orchestras. The appearance of musicians from the Ukraine is a welcome addition to the programme yet the war in eastern Europe has given cause to reflect on the arts of a country which has always fallen under the shadow of its big neighbour. Ukrainian music has yet to find its place in the world of music and hopefully this concert by the Odessa musicians will serve to begin the process of widening our knowledge of this richly talented people.

Of the orchestras which tour regularly to the west, Ukrainian ensembles are very rare visitors – I recall that the Odessa Philharmonic toured the UK twice in the 1990s and made recordings of Ukrainian music for ASV. From my experience, I consider the Kyiv-based orchestras of a higher calibre, yet this orchestra is from a city with a wealthy musical heritage – Odessa has produced some of the greatest singers of the last century, notably Solomiya Krushelnytska, and violinists such as David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein. The consummate musicians were conducted by their Music Director and Principal Conductor Hobart Earle, a People’s Artist of Ukraine.

The opening piece by Miroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) was brightly colourful, with beautiful writing for the flute of Nadya Duldier and by the harmonious brass of folk themes which reverberated in the orchestra: I recall these melodies are from the Carpathians which has a wealthy folk tradition. Dytynstvo (Childhood) comes from the score written for the Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) by Sergei Paradjanov.  The brief Elegy by Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912) was wonderfully colourful too, with a fine theme on the clarinet by Yurii Haiats showing this orchestra’s outstanding woodwind qualities.

Hobart Earle conducts pianist Tamara Stefanovich and the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra © Fabian Schellhorn

Of greater substance was the Third Piano Concerto by Alemdar Karamanov (1934-2007) which dates from 1968. Karamanov wrote this work when he found religion and began writing predominantly on sacred texts. This concerto is for free improvisation in which the soloist and orchestra play independently from each other. The opening (Allegretto) bars were heard on the solo trumpet of Serhii Ischenko of a rather despondent theme, prompting the Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich to play a rather lyrical one – unrelated to the trumpet idea – hinting at associations with Ravel and Debussy. The strings entered sounding beautifully romantic while there appeared other stylistic ideas from the soloist with suggestions of Lisztian arpeggios and switching to a Rachmaninov-like style in a prolonged cadenza.

In the Largo, Stefanovich played another bedazzling improvisation which developed into a fugue before the strings joined in a prolonged section swapping ideas between the orchestra and piano.

The third movement (Andantino) opened poignantly on the clarinet of Haiats and by Valerii Apostol on the horn with an edgy theme that was picked up by the cellos and double basses. Yet a more optimistic idiom emerged on the bassoon of Andrii Semaka of an idyllic idea which became increasingly melancholic on the strings. Then suddenly Stefanovich began an intriguing passage of glittering arpeggios followed by beautiful Ravelian sounds like water falling into a rippling stream. This passage was joined by the clarinets and a muted trumpet reprising the earlier idea and then an edgy sequence on the piano, flutes and horns, in an exciting, yet rather bombastic, crescendo suddenly subsiding into a reprise of the Rachmaninov-like theme before the soloist introduced a playful idea that descended into silence. This was an intriguing piece which leads one to explore more of this remarkable composer’s music.

It might have been a more interesting to follow these Ukrainian works with a major symphony, perhaps by Lyatoshinsky or Silvestrov, to enlighten audiences on this neglected strand of European music, but of course, there is a connection in that Sibelius’s Second Symphony is regarded as a ‘symphony of independence’ when the Russian Empire was imposing its colonial power on Finland and restricting its language and culture.

The first movement (Allegretto) opened with a calm uplifting theme from the woodwind in a rustic-hued shade: the heart and soul of this orchestra is the woodwind who play as if their lives depend on it. We were in a beguiling sunny ambience, yet the second idea brought a darker threat. Throughout this sequence there was superb playing from the mellifluous brass – notably the horn of Apostol. The second movement (Tempo andante, ma rubato) was of a different world of wide-open landscapes emphasised by the ever-colourful brass players, with a desperate melancholy reigning in the strings.

The third movement (Vivacissimo) was distinguished by a beautiful oboe passage from Taras Nester, and a Trio section (Lento e suave) that began on the timpani with five beats, prompting a sequence which was almost spectral in its imagery with an idea from Finnish folk song (again we heard the oboe of Nester). The Finale. Allegro moderato began with an overwhelming and powerfully optimistic theme on the trombones and the trumpet of Ischenko, with the strings glorious in the secondary great theme leading to the grand culmination’s celebratory D major.

Gregor Tassie

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