This was the penultimate leg of the newly formed Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra’s UK tour. It’s a collaborative ensemble (arising out of the UK-Russia Year of Music 2019) comprising British and Russian musicians currently attending conservatoires in their respective countries. Their Artistic Director Jan Latham-Koenig put together an oddly assembled programme which tipped the musical scales in favour of Shostakovich.
That aside, the evening brought some fine playing by musicians who really looked as if they were enjoying themselves. At times, their enthusiasm got the better of them, most obviously in the earth-shattering decibels that riveted you to your seat in the 1812 Overture. Recorded bells were rendered almost null and void by the exuberance coming from brass and percussion where a fuselage of bass drum shots erupted. Such was the keenness of the playing, Latham-Koenig barely needed to lift his baton, other than give eye contact and make occasional attempts to reduce the volume. As a concert finale, the Tchaikovsky would have been enough yet Latham-Koenig returned for ‘The Death of Juliet’ from Prokofiev’s Third Suite (Opus 101) of Romeo and Juliet – after such excitement this was very downbeat.
Earlier, Shakespeare’s Hamlet provided the inspiration for one of Shostakovich’s best film scores arranged and assembled by Levon Atovmyan in 1964. From its whip-crack opening chords through to a spellbinding ‘Dual and Death’, the six movements (omitting ‘The Ghost’ and ‘In the Garden’) were played with impressive discipline and vigour. Feather-light violins shone in ‘Ball at the Palace’, brass and percussion were suitably menacing in ‘Scene of the Poisoning’ and a rapt violin and unearthly celesta brought dreamy contemplation to ‘Ophelia’, a world away from the Suite for Variety Orchestra, an ‘end of the pier’ romp compiled in the late-1950s from film and stage scores. In four of its eight movements, augmented by saxophone quartet and an accordion, the orchestra responded to this colourful music with irrepressible good humour – relishing the clever parody of John Philip Sousa in the opening ‘March’, and Viennese charm swept through the ‘Waltz’, its tune familiar from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Opening proceedings was ‘Dawn’ from the Four Sea Interludes, potent with tensile violins, quivering woodwinds and charcoal-grey brass summoning the expanse of the Suffolk coast. ‘Sunday Morning’ glittered, Latham-Koenig not quite giving enough consideration to the very bright acoustic at the Anvil. ‘Moonlight’ lumbered along with little concern for gentler sonorities and finding release in a deafening maelstrom for the ‘Storm’ – its frenzy delivered with apocalyptic fervour. It was Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending with Jennifer Pike as the eloquent soloist that left the most favourable impression – orchestra and violinist perfectly balanced in a magical rendering that combined impeccable technique with poetic sensitivity.