Saturday 24 November 2012

Passion and Discipline - the Russian Virtuosi of Europe

Russian Virtuosi of Europe
The Russian Virtuosi of Europe were formed in 2004 by the London-based Russian violinist Yuri Zhislin, bringing together young players from the Russian School of string playing. The ensemble's appearance at Cadogan Hall on Friday 23 November, was the first chance to hear them in London this season. The concert also gave us the opportunity to hear the work of Rachael Young, a young New Zealand born cellist turned conductor who has been working with Leonard Grin. Their programme included three contrasting works by Russian composers, Schnittke, Shostakovitch and Tchaikovsky.

The programme opened in near darkness, with Yuri Zhislin and Natalia Lomeiko as the solo violinists, accompanied by an ensemble of just eight violins, two cellos and a double bass, in Schnittke's Moz-Art a la Haydn. This was the second of Schnittke's three pieces all based on the surviving fragment of a violin line by Mozart from the lost pantomime music, K416d of 1783. Schnittke originally re-worked Mozart's music for just two violins (in 1976), his second version added a string ensemble (in 1978) then finally in 1980 he produced a version for flutes and harp.

It is quite a playful work, with Schnittke including all sorts of references, some of which I picked up and some I am sure I didn't; but a joke once explained, ceases to become a joke. The ensemble, under Rachael Young's firm direction, played it with impressive seriousness (as with all good jokes) and a stunning technical ease. There wasn't just playing, there was the ensemble bursting into tears during the sad variation, the dramatic moment when the lights went on, the ensemble finally sitting down (they opened playing standing up), then later getting up again and finally the magical ending where the violins walked out, still playing. Leaving conductor, cellos and double bass, to continue in darkness. Along the way we had some cod wrong-note Mozart, duelling soloists, and even a snatch of a Mozart symphony.

All done with complete aplomb, virtuoso ease and a superb unanimity of purpose. Both soloists impressed with their technical command allied to a sense of fun. It was clear that not only are these talented players, but that they have rehearsed and talked together. Some ensembles come together, impressing with the individual players but never creating a feeling of ensemble, here it was clear that we had a passionate and disciplined group; all the players were fully engaged all the time.

After quite a degree of stage manoeuvring, the full ensemble were joined by young Latvian pianist Vestard Shimkus and trumpeter Philipp Hutter for Shostakovich's Piano Concert no. 1. The concerto was written in 1933 and premiered with the composer playing the solo piano with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. From the arresting piano introduction, Shimkus impressed by his disciplined and strongly nuanced playing. Playing from memory, his performance was strong and passionate, but firmly neo-classical in its clarity. In this he was matched by the ensemble (now numbering 24 players), whose playing was at all times crisp, incisive and passionate. The clean, vibrant string sound was by no means as vibrato heavy as some ensembles, which contributed to the admirable lines of the music.  Young's speeds for the first movement were quite brisk, but in this she was matched by Shimkus's dazzling playing and Hutter's sardonic trumpet interruptions. Though the movement has a strongly sardonic, comic edge this  was the darkest, most intense performance that I had heard, linking it with the neo-classical strength of Shostakovitch's solo piano music.

The haunting second movement was equally intense, and stunningly beautiful, the players clearly undisturbed by the wailing of a sick child in the audience. The strings brought a lovely sheen to the main melody, but it had a dark toned passion too. There were moments, admittedly, when the strings sounded a little too earth-bound rather than aetherial. But the powerful, expressionist playing as the drama developed, impressed immensely, matched by Shimkus's disciplined but passionate playing. Then, when the trumpet made its first entry there was a glorious shimmer to the string tone that was difficult to beat, the movement finally ending up as an eerie lament, with Shimkus's poignant piano playing.

The short third movement seemed, at times, to be in danger of appearing to be just the pianist noodling, but when the fourth movement started we were again struck by the brilliance of the piano and string playing. Young's speeds were brisk, but this wasn't a light performance. All concerned contributed to a dark sardonic feeling, with intense rhythmic interest. The closing pages, as the speeds got faster were anything but a mad scramble. Young was firmly in control and unflappable, bringing the work to a disciplined, brilliant finish.

Shimkus's playing impressed immensely, both with its poetry and its discipline. He is one of those players who can play loudly with nuance, but also to fine his tone down. The performance of the concerto was by no means sober, but the performers certainly imbued it with feeling of dark Russian angst.

After the interval we had a single work, Tchakovsky's Serenade for Strings, written in 1880. The strings made a surprisingly strong, firm sound, particularly considering the size of the group. The Tchaikovsky was played with incisive unanimity with a strong line. In the first movement there was a lovely rich depth to the textures, superb unanimity from the players but without being straitjacketed. The cellos were quite brilliant in their impossibly busy lines. Young encourage the players in delivering a rather massive and dark interpretation of the movement. Then suddenly it all evaporated into the light and airy, though even here there were accents and incisive playing cutting through the frilly bits.

The second movement was all poised swaying, disciplined and characterful with fine detailing in the underparts. Definitely and infectious dance. The third movement was quietly rich, with a lovely singing line. The dialogue between the cellos and violins was simply delightful, the texture developing superbly detailed multi-layers. Passion combined with discipline to create something melancholy and mysterious.

In the fourth movement during the slow build up towards the fast tempo, there were hints of a lack of unanimity. But once started the fast tempo, we had a very serious dance,  not abandoned but under Young's firm control. She kept the ensemble on a tight rein until the end, where the gathering speed never quite became wild abandon.

Quite rightly, the audience were extremely enthusiastic and we were treated to a reprise of the lilting second movement of the Tchaikovsky.

The ensemble will be playing in London again in May 2013 for the closing concert of the London Chamber Music Society season at King's Place.

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