Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998) was a Soviet era composer probably best known for his songs and choral music, but he was also a significant composer of film music, and composed the soundtracks for nineteen films. He studied under Shostakovich in the 1930s but his work lacks his teacher’s sense of irony and feeling for pastiche. He created a score for a film called The Blizzard (1964) directed by Vladimir Basov and based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin in which a blizzard separates two lovers on the night of their planned elopement. In 1974 he reworked the film score into a twenty-five-minute suite of nine movements, and it was a perfect piece for Alexander Vedernikov’s winter-themed concert of Russian music at the Barbican.
The Blizzard is a popular work in Russia and there is a famous recording conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev. It is easy to see why as it is modest, approachable music with a clear melodic style and heart-on-sleeve nostalgia. The opening Troika harks back to Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé but with an intriguing air of foreboding that was well brought out by Vedernikov along with the sparkling percussion. The charming Waltz has echoes of Khachaturian’s Masquerade, and there is a lovely flute solo (Michael Cox) at the beginning of the Autumn and Spring movement. The Romance – the film’s main theme and a great favourite in Russia – features a beautiful melody for the solo violin, very well played by Igor Yuzefovich, with piano accompaniment and then saturated strings. The Military March has some humour as well as being bold and brassy and the Wedding had a surprising meditative quality before the return of the Waltz and the icy blast of the final Winter Road. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played well throughout, guided and shaped by Vedernikov in his usual relaxed and unfussy manner.
This was followed by Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, played by Andrei Korobeinikov in a steely and unvaried reading that left the work’s depths unplumbed. A powerful opening soon became expressively heavy handed and whilst there were occasional moments of excitement, with some phenomenally neat fingerwork from Korbeinikov, the whole didn’t hang together. Vedernikov and the BBCSO tried to bring some nuance to the accompaniment but they sounded too restrained and the Dies irae theme lacked a sense of foreboding. The famous 18th variation failed to take off but the sprint for the line in the final variations had some urgency. Korobeinikov saved his most fluid and luminous playing for his encore, Rachmaninov’s G-sharp-minor Prelude from the opus 32 set.
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is a real charmer, especially in the first two movements. It makes surprisingly few appearances in the concert hall although there have been more in recent years. Vedernikov was in his element and drew fine playing with some notable solos and an interpretation that balanced dreaminess with fleet-footed elegance. The unassuming flute and bassoon theme at the opening of the first movement had a melancholy beauty and the strings were rich with Vedernikov pressing forward where necessary. The plangent oboe solo in the second movement was beautifully played by Tom Blomfeld as was the movement’s powerful horn proclamation. Vedernikov gave the scherzo wit and the shift into the lilting waltz-like trio was nicely handled. The slow folk-song inspired introduction of the final movement was well shaped and Vedernikov was able to find some variety in the ensuing bombast to stop it sounding too over-blown.
- Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in Afternoon Concert, on January 13, 2020 at 2.00pm, and available on BBC Sounds for thirty days afterwards.