Wednesday 15 January 2020

Notable debut: the Armenian State Symphony orchestra's first Barbican appearance gave us music from Armenia alongside Bruch and Ravel with the orchestra's artist in residence, Maxim Vengerov

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra (Photo Lusine Sargsyan)
Armenian State Symphony Orchestra (Photo Lusine Sargsyan)
Alexey Shor, John Ter-Tatevosian, Max Bruch, Maurice Ravel; Maxim Vengerov, Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, Sergey Smbatyan; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
On a rare visit to the UK, the Armenian orchestra brings a programme mixing popular classics with rarer Armenian classical repertoire and a new work by the orchestra's composer in residence

The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra made its Barbican debut on Tuesday 14 January 2020, as part of a European concert tour supported by the European Foundation for Support of Culture, visiting Germany, Austria, the UK, the Czech Republic and Russia. Conducted by Sergey Smbatyan, the orchestra was joined by its artist in residence, violinist Maxim Vengerov, for St. Elmo Barcarolle by Alexey Shor, Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26 and Maurice Ravel'sTzigane, and we also heard the UK premiere of Armenian composer John Ter-Tatevosian's 1959 Symphony No. 2 'The Fate of Man'.

The  Armenian State Symphony Orchestra is quite a young ensemble, it was founded in 2005 by Sergey Smbatyan who remains the artistic director and principal conductor. In fact, Smbatyan was only 18 when he founded the orchestra, as the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia, and it has developed into one of the leading orchestras in Armenia. The personnel of the orchestra remain relatively young too, with a very high percentage of women on stage at the Barbican. The orchestra gives over 50 concerts per year, with a repertoire which mixes Western classical music with contemporary composers and Armenian composers, including the Armenian Composers Arts Festival and the Khachaturian International Festival.

The Barbican concert opened with Alexey Shor's St. Elmo Barcarolle which was written for the orchestra's appearance at the 2018 Malta International Music Festival, and the title refers to Malta's Fort St Elmo. Born in Kiev and now based in Israel and the USA, Alexey Shor is the orchestra's composer in residence. Shor's musical language was tonal and melody-based, St. Elmo Barcarolle was very much a song without words, Maxim Vengerov's singing violin line over a richly textured accompaniment.

This was followed by the UK premiere of Symphony No. 2 'The Fate of Man' by the Armenian composer John Ter-Tatevosian (1926-1988). Ter-Tatevosian's symphony, written in 1959, was inspired by the short-story The Fate of Man by the Russian writer, Mikhail Sholokhov, which describes a man facing insufferable difficulties. The work was in five movements, each in multiple sections which meant that it flowed rather like an extended tone poem. Written for large orchestra with significant percussion, the piece explores the emotions and the drama of the original story though without a detailed narrative it was tricky to work out. Ter-Tatevosian's training dates from the period of Soviet domination of Armenia, and you felt that the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, particularly the more narrative ones, were not far away in the use of the orchestra and the general sound-world though without Shostakovich's more sardonic edge. Ter-Tatevosian used a rich orchestral palate, writing music which was restless and full of incident, and created a piece which was highly colourful and expressively intense.

After the interval, the repertoire became more familiar as Maxim Vengerov returned to play Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. This was a large-scale, full-blooded and romantic account of the piece. Vengerov played with vibrantly rich tone and phrased the music strongly, this was a performance inspired by the rich vein of big romantic concertos. In fact, Bruch never pits his soloist against the orchestra, instead the two engage in dialogue and the orchestra only gets truly unleashed in the orchestral tuttis which were here full of vivid life. The full-blooded romanticism of the opening movement developed into a beautifully sung account of the second, whilst the final was full of vigorous bravura. From both soloist and orchestra, this was a heartfelt performance.

Vengerov was also the soloist in Ravel's Tzigane, Ravel's concert rhapsody written for the Hungarian violinist Jelly D'Aranyi. Vengerov brought out the strong gypsy music in the opening solo, making it vibrant and strongly articulated, really digging in. The orchestra, when it finally comes in, was elegant but also strongly inflected,  this was a very richly characterised performance with a real virtuoso finish from Vengerov.

The almost capacity audience was very enthusiastic, and we were rewarded with an encore, Vengerov, Smbatyan and the orchestra performed Alexey Shor's Elegy.

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