The really encouraging thing is that Music of Today is gathering larger and larger audiences, as this most recent one showed young and older listeners gathered together. Martyn Brabbins is now the Series Conductor, James MacMillan the Artistic Director he normally introduces the music and talks with the chosen composer.
This particular Music of Today broke the mould a tad (so will the next one on 3 June see below). The host was Gerard McBurney, we had two composers, and the 45 minutes was extended to an hour.
McBurneys extensive knowledge of Russian music and literature was apposite to his platform chat with Smirnov and Firsova, both recently turned 50, and now husband and wife. He was represented by one piece played twice. His Elegy for the late Edison Denisov (Smirnovs teacher a great composer) in its original guise for unaccompanied cello is suitably dark-toned and spare, contrasting with shivering short notes, and includes telling use of silence. At the close Smirnov requests that the cellist plays single strokes on wineglasses (here crotales). The visual physicality of Ivashkin who otherwise gave an inside rendition putting his bow down, striking the crotales, and repeating the process, took the edge off this otherwise understated but moving piece; better in my view it finishes when the cellist slithers to infinity after about five minutes.
At the end of this concert, we heard the seven-minute Elegy in its version for 16 players. What a difference! The shape and melodic line intact, Elegys ritual and mourning was all the more explicit for the resonance and colour that the small group of wind, brass, strings and percussion brought to it. With silences fewer, an instrumental discourse crafted with an economy worthy of Webern (including brass-led public outbursts) and tolling percussion in place of wineglasses, Elegy is a compelling piece.
Equally compelling was Elena Firsovas Before the Thunderstorm for soprano and an ensemble of string quartet, flute, clarinet, horn, celesta and percussion. Setting poetry by Osip Mandelstam, Firsova has created a 25-minute Cantata, which proved haunting, one with a real sense of atmosphere and narrative. The opening instrumental section established this with the simplest of brush strokes and a clarinet solo loaded with emotion.
The vocal writing is imaginative and varied urgent declamation, fractured lines, wide intervals and single-note expression that yields to long legato lines and a melodic generosity and warmth of utterance that reminded of Tchaikovsky. The chill in the air established at the outset beware! was mirrored in the impending doom of the last song for Mandelstam, to quote Firsova, this [thunderstorm] meant his imprisonment, exile and death in the concentration camp of GULAG.
With Sarah Leonard in fine and sensitive voice, and the Philharmonias musicians and Martyn Brabbins in committed form, this was an engrossing concert. Ideally the Firsova and 16-part Elegy should be recorded.
- The next Philharmonia Orchestra Music of Today concert is Sunday 3 June in the RFH new works by post-graduate students from the Royal Academy of Music. No ticket required just turn up!
- The Philharmonias 7.30 concert that evening includes Bruckners Eighth Symphony conducted by Lorin Maazel
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201
- Book Online: www.rfh.org.uk
- Following the Smirnov/Firsova event, the Philharmonia played a concert under Yevgeny Svetlanov click here to read Mike Langhornes review