Feature Review: The Second St Petersburg British Music Festival [15-25 November 2009]
Written by Edward Clark
In September 1941 Hitler issued a directive to “wipe the city of Petersburg (sic) off the face of the earth”. In this case a Nazi order, as opposed to the ruthless efficiency of the Holocaust, proved ineffective. History tells its own story. Today St Petersburg is a beautiful city, rightly named the “Venice of the North”. It is a city full of culture; art, music, plays, poetry. Truly the home of Pushkin.
However, most of it is Russian (except for the glories of the Hermitage). St Petersburg lives in a vacuum, aware of its priceless heritage, less-able to countenance much modernist advance and only gradually welcoming outside influences. There has been a big change since my last visit, in 2007, for the first Festival. Then, most concerts in the month of November were devoted to Russian music. Now quite a number are given over to European composers under non-Russian conductors.
The opportunity to bring British music to St Petersburg remains irresistible, as demonstrated by our use of better orchestras and musicians than in 2007. The shame is that the size of a British expatriate audience has significantly declined due to the recent law on restricting foreign residency. Russia seems determined to protect its own interests in the face of increasing globalisation of personnel movement. Products, yes; people no. Russia is for Russians.
I was aware of the benefits of this view when listening to a Tchaikovsky concert given by the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Dimitriev; Russian musicians playing music by Russia’s greatest composer. Think of another country emulating this aspect of music-making. No, few European orchestras, if any, remain 100-percent committed to employing their own nationals (even if they were allowed!). The Berlin Philharmonic, once the greatest orchestra in the world, is now populated by over half non-Germans, which makes it just another good orchestra, like the British ones really. The result of this Russian concert was devastatingly good. At the first rehearsal, the conductor devoted four hours to the Fifth Symphony as if the musicians had never seen the score before.
Russian orchestras give equal time to British music. Matthew Taylor was allocated three three-hour rehearsals plus one on the day to prepare for the opening concert made up of two world premieres (by Toby Young and Arthur Butterworth) and Britten’s Cello Symphony, the soloist Sergei Slovachevsky playing the work for the first time. Alas Slovachevsky succumbed to a high temperature and could only attend the final rehearsal. Our recording demonstrates the passion and integrity of the concert, so ably guided by Matthew Taylor, the most talented musician of his generation in Great Britain. Controlling and motivating Russian orchestras are gifts not given to many non-Russians I can assure you! It requires consummate musicianship and a great baton technique.
The concert ended with the 86-year-old Arthur Butterworth’s new Sixth Symphony, a 35-minute piece in four movements. It seems to be a summing up of a lifetime spent in a post-Sibelius and -Vaughan Williams soundworld where nature’s elements are so beautifully expressed by a wonderful musical intelligence.
Throughout the Festival there was abundant evidence of the care and love shown to totally unfamiliar music by our Russian performers. This can be heard on our recordings of string quartets by William Alwyn (No.2), Robert Simpson (No.7) and John Ireland (No.1) played by the Versinage Quartet. It can also be heard when listening to the wonderful string section of the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra playing classics by Elgar (Introduction and Allegro) and Vaughan Williams (Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending), a recent work by Matthew Taylor, Romanza) and the unfamiliar but bracing Concerto Grosso No.2 by our featured composer, William Alwyn.
Festival Director Rudi Eastwood took the podium and was given plenty of rehearsal time to prepare the musicians in this repertoire. Eastwood studied conducting at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and picked up the Russian habit of dispensing with a baton. He also experienced the Russian habit of entering a half-beat behind the down-beat (in this case nearly a whole beat) and the opening of the Elgar was a surprise to all, particularly the audience, its members wondering who was leading who. Eastwood would do well to return to conventional means, take up the baton and have lessons on how to open on the beat.
This concert was, nevertheless, a triumph in hearing the spiritual beauty of the Tallis Fantasia and the wonderful playing of Madeleine Mitchell in The Lark Ascending. Mitchell, with the versatile Eastwood at the piano, gave a recital of Rawsthorne, Alwyn, MacMillan, Bridge and Elgar’s Violin Sonata in a lovely St Petersburg salon room. Eastwood is on much firmer territory when accompanying and showed real sympathy for each work. Mitchell displayed her total connection with this repertoire. It was a wide-ranging concert with the astringency of Rawsthorne alongside the quiet religious flavour of MacMillan. Elgar spoke for himself in this deeply felt interpretation. The audience seemed to love it all.
To allow discussion of the Festival’s aims we held a seminar at the Composers’ Union and attracted a number of young composers keen to learn more about British music. I spoke about the use made of tradition by our composers, playing a short piece by Thomas Tallis to set the scene. The Festival was called Tallis to Today and I illustrated the meaning of this by pointing out the Festival programme embracing Spem in alium by Tallis, then Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and music by David Matthews, whose Sixth Symphony is based on Vaughan Williams’s hymn-tune Down Ampney. Tradition is seen in this context as renewing things past.
David Matthews gave an interesting talk on how he believes the symphony has moved northwards in the 20th-century away from its earlier home of the Austro-German schools to Great Britain, the Nordic countries and Russia, citing Sibelius as one of the most important composers (“perhaps the most important”) in developing new forms and structures for succeeding generations of composers.
A Festival guest (and sponsor on behalf of the William Alwyn Foundation), Andrew Knowles, gave an introduction to the music of Alwyn, whose music received the most performances of any composer in the Festival. Alwyn, like the 2007 Festival featured composer, Malcolm Arnold, was able to separate his proficiency writing for films with his concert music. Both made a welcome impact on Russian audiences, who spotted the ability to write music in a broadly melodic style. Both Arnold and Alwyn were totally unknown before the Festivals and Knowles’s talk certainly sparked keen interest, with plenty of recordings and literature available for the seminar audience.
It was appropriate to hear Tallis’s Spem in alium, sung by the St Petersburg Chamber Choir, and it was apparently a Russian premiere! This was followed by the Festival commission, Next to Nothing, a 40-part motet by Marcus Tristan Heathcock, a British composer, part resident in St Petersburg. Both were stunning in the atmosphere of the large, Lutheran church. This is music totally unfamiliar to Russian choirs, although some of the singers had sung the Tallis in Great Britain. And difficult, too, not helped by an outbreak of Swine Flu in the city. Also we heard the short and very telling My Beloved by one of the Festival’s keenest supporters, Anthony Bolton. Written for his son’s wedding this made an indelible impression when sung by 40 Russian voices. The choir director, Nikolaj Kornev, must be congratulated for his superb response to this repertoire, so different to the Russian religious music heard elsewhere in the concert.
Martin Butler gave a piano recital of his music and that of John Ireland in the Rimsky-Korsakov museum concert hall. A capacity audience was enthralled. This to the last concert, at the Sheremetev Palace concert hall, previously visited by Berlioz and the Schumanns. There were problems here to do with lack of co-ordination between the two different groups performing a varied set of works by Butler (his zany Marimba Concerto), Alwyn’s Mirages for baritone and piano, his Concerto for flute and eight wind instruments, a premiere for David Matthews’s Pushkin settings Winter Passions in the original Russian and another first performance, the fairy-tale Jack and the Beanstalk for narrator (me!) and ensemble, under Maxim Valkov.
Rehearsals were due to begin at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, but nothing happened until 5 when everybody had turned up. Mind you, the piano-tuner arrived at 4 so nothing would have been accomplished anyway. Then Yuri Serov arrived having previously said that Matthews’s setting was impossible. He proceeded to ignore the composer (nor did he invite him to the rehearsals) and proceeded to give a perfunctory performance, often far too loud and totally unsympathetic. Matthews, who gave a short talk translated into Russian, before the performance, was then ignored at the end. This was the final insult. Serov told Matthews that it was impossible for a foreigner to set music to Russian texts (presumably he meant particularly the idolised Pushkin), ignoring Britten’s setting and the gesture of friendship intended by Matthews. Both sides had taken offence at the other’s behaviour but Serov’s was inexcusably bad. The audience retrieved the situation by thanking Matthews at the end for his sympathetic music to Pushkin’s beautiful prose.
So ended the second St Petersburg Festival. The coda was merely an unwelcome finale to a great success spread over two weeks. Numerous premieres, a rare performance of a masterwork by Britten, the chance to engage with Russians with British music and the opportunity to escape to the Mariinsky Theatre for a double-bill by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Memories to cherish.