wed 22/11/2017

Lill, Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Kogan, Symphony Hall Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

Lill, Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Kogan, Symphony Hall Birmingham

Lill, Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Kogan, Symphony Hall Birmingham

An Anglo-Russian collaboration from an orchestra with a voice of its own

Pavel Kogan - bouncy beats and silver tonesMSSO

Behemoth Dances. Who dances? You know, Behemoth, the huge demonic black cat who cakewalks through Stalin’s Moscow in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita spreading mayhem and magic; the spirit – as quoted by Bulgakov, and taken by Stephen Johnson as a sort of motto for his new orchestral work – “that always wills evil, but always does good”. A sardonic fanfare announces his appearance, before the orchestra whizzes away on a bustling, bristling spree. Woodwinds squeal and skirl, the surface glitters, and a piano throws in a few deadpan comments.

But this isn’t just a deliciously orchestrated successor to one of Walton’s comedy overtures. There’s something going on beneath the surface here: solemn chants, dark undercurrents, and a spreading, quietly insistent sense that we’re actually hearing something profoundly sad. And with Pavel Kogan conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra – and if you didn’t know the composer lives in Herefordshire – you could be convinced that Behemoth Dances is showing you something remarkably like the Russian soul.

Stephen JohnsonAnd yes, this is the same Stephen Johnson (pictured right) we know from Radio Three’s sorely missed Discovering Music – the authority on Bruckner, Shostakovich and Sibelius, the award-winning documentary-maker, and the writer of music criticism so lucid, so readable and so generous that it makes the rest of us feel like giving up. I can’t deny that part of the pleasure of this almost-premiere (it was first heard in Moscow last month) was seeing a fellow gamekeeper make such a terrific job of turning poacher. Johnson has been reticent about his composing, though he trained under Alexander Goehr. Hopefully no longer: Behemoth Dances shows that he has a voice, he has technique, and he can connect with an audience. The Birmingham audience cheered.

Above all, though, he has something worth saying. Aware that he was writing for the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Johnson has played to their very particular sound: the layered black sonorousness of their string tone; those pale, plaintive Russian oboes and clarinets. But Kogan and his orchestra can only play the notes on the page, and the way Johnson captures both the quiet tragedy and the anarchic triumph of Bulgakov’s novel – all within the confines of a seven-minute concert opener – is a genuine achievement. More, please.

John Lill was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and this was a less successful Anglo-Russian collaboration. Lill seemed to be having an off night; his plain, occasionally untidy solo contribution was a frustrating contrast to the alertness and colour that Kogan drew from his orchestra. The MSSO’s violins positively danced through the opening theme, phrasing together so flexibly and instinctively that you wondered if they even needed Kogan’s clear but bouncy beat. Symphony Hall has heard its share of the Mariinsky in recent years, and after Gergiev’s thrash and burn approach it was rewarding to experience a very different Russian orchestral sound: softer round the edges, more fluid, and with a brass section that glowed like well-polished silver.  

Not that it was any less passionate. Kogan’s conception of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is lyrical, something that gave a satisfyingly organic sense of momentum to the first movement: the martial entry of drums and trumpets at the peak of the development felt like a change of perspective rather than (as so often) the point of the whole thing. Basses and cellos bit crunchily into the Allegretto – down bows all the way – and Kogan let Shostakovich speak bluntly, driving through without a single ritardando to underline his points. And the finale shot off at the speed of a galop: take it or leave it, although the effect was to make that supposedly ambiguous ending sound unmistakably like a triumph.

Well, there’d been more than enough honesty en route to make that work. If nothing else, the final blaze of the MSSO’s brass was a spectacular rejoinder to the myth that the world’s orchestras are sounding less and less distinctive. Even after three (three!) encores – Rachmaninov's Vocalise, Shostakovich's Tahiti Trot and a fabulously stylish little wind-band arrangement of Mariano Mores's El Firulete – it rang in the ears all night.

Johnson captures both the quiet tragedy and the anarchic triumph of Bulgakov’s novel

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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