Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Melos Sinfonia plays Panufnik and Myaskovsky

Andrzej Panufnik - photo Camilla Jessel
Andrzej Panufnik
Photo Camilla Jessel

Melos Sinfonia, Oliver Zeffman, Bartholemew LaFollette: LSO St Luke's
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 31 2014
Star rating: 5.0

A force to be reckoned with: Melos Sinfonia plays Tchaikovsky, Panufnik and Myaskovsky

2014 is the centenary of Andrzej Panufnik’s birth and the Melos Sinfonia joined a year of celebration at LSO St Luke’s in London. The Melos Sinfonia, an orchestra made up of recent graduates and current students of music collages and conservatoires was conducted by Oliver Zeffman, himself a student, currently at St Petersburg Conservatory. But make no mistake – this is a formidable orchestra with a broad, warm sound that only comes from talented people playing as one.

Easing the audience in gently, the concert began with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s (1840 – 1893) ‘Romeo and Juliet’ overture. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was written in 1869 and reworked, in collaboration with Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), several times through to 1880.

Balakirev was one of the ‘Mighty Five’ who sought to modernise Russian music. The Mighty Five also included César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Aleksander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Highly influenced by composers such as Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt they nevertheless were interested in retaining Russian identity in art music by use of folk tunes, Russian modes and scales, and folk polyphony. From these beginnings Russian music became a force to be reckoned with and in turn influenced European music.


A series of vignettes, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ includes religious and folk tunes that are now as much a part of European musical history as Russian. For an orchestra they are so well known that it is a challenge to produce a performance that will impress.

The depth of sound produced by the Melos Sinfonia, especially from the lower strings was striking, as was their clarity. Tchaikovsky demands a lot of emotion but this music is what this orchestra was made to play. The hall at LSO St Luke’s was purpose built as a music venue and responded to everything the orchestra threw at it – you could feel the timpani through your feet.

Robert Hugill talked to Oliver Zeffman and Bartholemew LaFollette before the concert to get their thoughts and ideas on both the Panufnik and Myaskovsky. A different perspective was given at the concert in an interview between Roxanna Panufnik (his daughter and a composer in her own right) and Donald Macleod who presents ‘Composer of the week’ on BBC Radio 3.

Roxanna talked about the oppression of composers in the era of socialist realism in Poland from 1948. Composers, such as her father, were required to produce music as propaganda, which they resented but did it to keep their family and friends safe. One example she gave was of an interview with her father which had extra comments dubbed in to represented party views. In 1954 Panufnik climbed out of a Zurich toilet window during a conducting tour, and escaped to England.

Panufnik’s name was censored in Poland for years after he left, but by 1970 his music started to be played. When the Berlin Wall came down and democracy was restored to Poland he felt that he could return home for the Warsaw Autumn Festival. It was about this time that the Cello Concerto, commissioned by the LSO, was being composed. Panufnik was ill, although he did not realise this at the time, and he used his last strength to complete it in 1991.

Panufnik was interested in shapes and patterns, and the geometry underlying the cello concerto, Roxanna explained, is a musical representation of a mandorla (the shape left by the intersection of two circles). This resulted in both movements being reflexive palindromes. Performed by Bartholemew LaFollette the structure was obvious but not intrusive and resulted in a feeling of completeness.

Bartholemew LaFollette
Bartholemew LaFollette
The first movement began with a rumbling on drums which turned into a cello growl. The music gradually unfolded and became more complex as other instruments joined in. The texture of the accompaniment built up and moved around the instruments, evolving into a counter-melody before the reversal back to cello and drums. LaFollette’s style with lots of pressure and huge vibrato resulted in interesting things happening with harmonics and glissandi.

The waltz-like second movement used more detailing of the cello glissando, and staccato-glissando than the first, and involved more micro dynamics - quick changes, rather than a long slow crescendo- decrescendo. At some point at the cello changed to glissandi staccato for the reversal and then into a quiet and controlled cadenza, which increased in movement and force, full of attacked pizzicato and false harmonics, until the orchestra returned for an explosive coda.

Clive Marks, a Friend of the Melos Sinfonia, talked a little about Polish-born Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950). He jokingly called Myaskovsky, who is little known in the UK, ‘the man who composed too much’. Myaskovsky composed 27 symphonies (the one performed was the last, composed in 1949). In 1948 his music was condemned as Formalism (anything that did not conform to Socialist Realism was decried as Formalism) and he died two years later. Eventually he would win a Stalin prize for Symphony 27 but not until after his death.

Symphony No. 27 had a dark Russian sound and was more in line with the Romantic feel of the Tchaikovsky than Panufnik’s exploration of structure. Tune led the first movement began on bassoon before passing the theme around the orchestra. A second theme is introduced and the two are expanded and revisited as the movement grows in intensity to a powerful ending.

The adagio movement began with a chorale played by the brass and echoed by woodwind. A timpani rumble signaled a change to strings and a theme which was very familiar. Other folk tunes and musical styles came and went in a half remembered way. The final presto switched from fast and quiet to fast and loud. Largely in three, with a waltz-like feel, this contrasted strikingly with the more solid and grand sections in duple time and ends on a suitably Romantic flurry.

The Melos Sinfonia, Oliver Zeffman, and Bartholemew LaFollette are a force to be reckoned with and made this concert an event. The addition of the talks between works was a nice touch and gave a more personal overtone than programme notes alone. You can find other events in the Panufnik centenary on his centenary web page.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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