Wednesday 17 July 2019

East Anglian-based arts writer, Tony Cooper, previews the 2019 Britten Weekend at Snape Maltings in October

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963.
Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963.
This year’s Britten Weekend (Friday 18 to Sunday 20 October 2019) pinpoints the first encounter Benjamin Britten had with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in September 1960. The beginning of two enduring and long-lasting friendships, it led to the Lowestoft-born composer embracing instrumental chamber music while it also had a profound effect on the Aldeburgh Festival and created significant links with the Iron Curtain at one of the most tense and difficult periods of the Cold War.

Alban Gerhadt (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Alban Gerhadt (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
The opening concert (Friday, 18 October, 8pm, Britten Studio, Snape) features the award-winning British-American soprano, Julia Sitkovetsky, and the German cellist, Alban Gerhardt - who, by the way, has collaborated with the Austrian-born composer, Thomas Larcher, one of the artists-in-residence at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival - as well as the well-known pianist and accompanist, Roger Vignoles, who lists Gerald Moore as his inspiration for pursuing a career in accompaniment. In his memoirs, Moore wrote that his services were not needed at the Aldeburgh Festival ‘as the presiding genius, there is the greatest accompanist in the world’. Praise, indeed!

Three works by Shostakovich are included in the programme: Cello Sonata, Hebrew Songs and the five romances for soprano and piano entitled Satires (Pictures of the Past) in which Galina Vishnevskaya gave the work its première in Moscow in February 1961. The five sections are named: ‘To a Critic’, ‘Spring Awakening’, ‘Descendants’, ‘Misunderstanding’ and ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’.

Britten will be represented by a couple of works: the five-movement Cello Sonata premièred by Rostropovich at the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival and the song-cycle The Poet’s Echo composed by Britten in August 1965 during a visit he made to the Soviet Union staying at Dilizhan, Armenia. The cycle is set to six poems by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and received its première at the Moscow Conservatoire on 2nd December 1965. The work’s dedicated to Galina (Galya) Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich.

Julia Sitkovetsky
Julia Sitkovetsky
The following morning (Saturday, 19th, 11am) Roger Vignoles takes over the Britten Studio keeping good company with Julia Sitkovetsky and Alban Gerhardt to perform Britten’s Cello Suite No.1 and Cello Suite No.3. These solo cello works are dedicated to Rostropovich and encapsulate a world of fluctuating emotional states and the link to Mother Russia is inescapable particularly in the folk-tinged third cello suite. A couple of works by Russian composers complete the programme: Prokofiev’s Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova and Rachmaninov’s Six Songs comprising ‘Lilacs’, ‘At Night’, ‘Into my Open Window’, ‘Morning’, ‘The Island’ and ‘The Coming of Spring’.

Britten’s encounter with Russia and musicians from that country in the 1960s had a powerful and lasting influence upon him and in a ‘study afternoon’ on Saturday, 19th October (Britten Studio, 2.30pm) - hosted by Dr Lucy Walker of the Britten-Pears Foundation - the session will take a look at how Britten would have experienced Russia at the height of the Cold War in the decade of the 1960s. Speakers include the writer and broadcaster, Stephen Johnson - author of How Shostakovich Changed My Mind - who’ll investigate the cultural context and remarkable psychological effects of Shostakovich’s music.

Members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Dutch conductor, Jac van Steen, descend upon Snape Maltings Concert Hall (Saturday, 19 October, 7.30pm) to perform a delectable programme comprising Britten’s Russian Funeral (a six-minute piece), Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (featuring Alban Gerhardt as soloist) and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10, a great and adventurous work lasting just under one hour. The work has an epic quality to it which starts in dark desolation and ends in dazzling brightness, giving one of music’s most brutal evocations of violence and terror along the way. Its conclusion, too, seems to speak as much of barely-suppressed fury and raw defiance as it does of glorious triumph.

The BBC orchestra stay over for the final concert of the Britten Weekend (Sunday, 20th October, 3pm) recreating the 1960 London concert in which Britten met Rostropovich and Shostakovich for the first time. An entertaining programme is on offer comprising Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat major featuring the British cellist, Laura van der Heijden, who won the 2012 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. Rachmaninov’s ravishing Symphony No.3 in A minor completes what promises a glorious and entertaining concert.

In melodic outline and rhythm, Rachmaninov’s third symphony is the composer’s most expressively Russian symphony particularly in the dance rhythms of the finale. But what is ground-breaking about the work is the greater economy of utterance compared to its two predecessors. This more Spartan-like style - first apparent in Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - enhances the emotional power of the work which was premièred in November 1936 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 was written for Rostropovich who committed the work to memory in just four days. He gave the work its première on 4th October 1959 with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in the Large Hall of the Leningrad Conservatoire. It is widely considered to be one of the most difficult concerted works for cello along with Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante in which it shares certain features such as the prominent role of isolated timpani strokes. Shostakovich said that ‘an impulse’ for the piece was provided by his admiration for Prokofiev’s work.

The first movement begins with a four-note main theme derived from the composer's DSCH motif, although the intervals, rhythm and shape of the motto are continually distorted and re-shaped throughout the movement. The theme reappears in the composer’s String Quartet No.8 dating from 1960 and it is also related to a theme from the score that Shostakovich wrote for the two-part 1948 film, The Young Guard, directed by Sergei Gerasimov and based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Fadeyev. The scenario illustrates a group of Soviet soldiers being marched to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. The film received the 1949 Stalin Prize.

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