Wednesday 6 September 2017

Holy chants and apocalyptic mayhem (and more besides)

Alexandra Harwood
Alexandra Harwood
Shostakovich, Alexandra Harwood, Schnittke, Glinka; I Musicanti; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Sep 3 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Leon Bosch and his ensemble mixing Russian classics with a new piece by Alexandra Harwood

The new season at St John’s Smith Square marked the beginning of autumn, weather-wise and light-wise and a impulse to be inside on a Sunday afternoon. Leon Bosch and I Musicanti returned on Sunday 3 September with a programme which combined music by Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Glinka with a new work by Alexandra Harwood. Leon Bosch and I Musicanti seem to have nailed the challenge of making that space feel cosy, not just by drawing the curtains and ensuring we all sat in the front part of the hall, but also with their choice of repertoire and their collegiate style of playing for each other as much as for us. They also seem to have solved the perennial problem of how to sound intimate with all that marble – by positioning themselves of the stage right rather than slap-bang in the middle of the stage.

Their 2017/18 offering is a series called Alexandra and the Russians, combining works by Alexandra Harwood, two of them world premières, with works from the earliest Russian composers (or the earliest ones who wrote chamber music anyway). We have six players (Sofia Lisovskaya – piano, Tamás András – violin, Fenella Humphreys – violin, Robert Smissen – viola, Richard Harwood – cello, Leon Bosch – double bass) , all big hitters in their own right, whose delight in making music together rubs off on us.
Their programme started with Shostakovich’s Op 57 Piano Quintet. He made a break from his quartet-writing routine because he wanted an excuse to go travelling as the pianist. Apparently he had a fear of boring his audiences so he played fast to keep them on their toes. This piece started in a very solid, Romantic Russian sound world but didn’t stay there for long before turning into something much more angular and ending with a spare, serene allegretto that had a taste of ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’, Soviet-style.

Alexandra Harwood’s ‘one-movement musical tableau’ came next. The Fiddler In Hell had a crazy quality reminiscent of a musical and somewhat more compact telling of one of Nikolai Leskov’s tales: a miser and a fiddler meeting in hell and the fiddler forced to play the devil’s tune. Fenella Humphreys used two tuned differently violins and swapped them around for the Norwegian Fanitullen (Devil’s Tune) – everything sounded so violent I was amazed there were no casualties.

Schnittke’s miniature for cello and double bass, Hymnus II, was written in 1974, the year before Shostakovich died. It packs in the emptiest, most ethereal sounds of the top of the two instruments’ ranges and the angriest pizzicato. It was a long way from Glinka.

We ended with Glinka’s Grand Septet, to my ear very much in the style of the Mendelssohn Octet with a huge helping of Chopin. Glinka went to Italy aged 26 to absorb the musical culture there, and met Mendelssohn and Berlioz before coming back to St Petersburg to study with John Field who had exerted such a huge influence on Chopin. The finale required incredible virtuosity from the pianist. All the upper strings had some gorgeous music to play: a tender duet for the violins and a lyrical viola solo. Not much need for Leon Bosch’s virtuosity in this piece, but the fact that he was there created a heartbeat for the whole piece.

Another lovely afternoon: more Alexandra and all flavours of Russian chamber music to come. Don’t miss.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

I Musicanti
Sofia Lisovskaya – piano
Tamás András – violin
Fenella Humphreys – violin
Robert Smissen – viola
Richard Harwood – cello
Leon Bosch – double bass

Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-75) Piano Quintet Op 57
Alexandra Harwood (b, 1966) The Fiddler in Hell (world première)
Alfred Schnittke (1934-98) Hymnus II
Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) Grand Sextet in Eb

Elsewhere on this blog:

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