Feature Review: Dancers on a Tightrope – Beyond Shostakovich

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Friday-Sunday, 13-15 October 2006, Queen Elizabeth Hall & Purcell Room, London

13 October, Purcell Room


String Quartet No.2


Quartetto Piccolo

String Quartet No.1


String Quartet No.2

Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Lucas Fels (cello)]

13 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall


Dancer on a Tightrope


Symphony No.2 [UK premiere]

Ode to a Nightingale


Compositions 1-3

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)

Andrew Haveron (violin)

John Constable (piano)

London Sinfonietta

Reinbert de Leeuw

14 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall






String Trio


String Trio


Piano Quartet L’istesso tempo

Kremerata Musica [Gidon Kremer (violin), Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello) & Katja Skanavi (piano)]

14 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall


Preface to the Complete Collection of my Works, Op.123

Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin, Op.146

Seven Verses on poems by Alexander Blok, Op.127

Five Romances to words of Dolmatovsky, Op.98

Five Romances to texts from Krokodil magazine, Op.121

Hypothetically Murdered – Mashenka’s Two Little Songs

The Gunshot – Dundee’s Romance

From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op.79

Joan Rodgers (soprano)

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)

Ilya Levinsky (tenor)

Sergei Leiferkus (bass-baritone)

Semyon Skigin (piano)

Members of the Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen (violin), Paul Watkins (cello) & Ian Brown (piano)]

15 October, Queen Elizabeth Hall


My LIfe at the Movies – Devised and scripted by John Riley

Simon Russell Beale (narrator)

Anna Azernikova (soprano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Mark Fitz-Gerald

As devised and programmed by Gerard McBurney, “Dancers on a Tightrope” made for an interesting sequel to the South bank’s three-day commemoration of Shostakovich’s centenary. As before, the music events were complemented by documentaries (including a startling insight into the thinking of Galina Ustvolskaya) and a host of animation films shown in the foyer, even though the subtitle ‘Beyond Shostakovich’ only held good for the first three of the five concerts under review.

One of the most valuable aspects of these non-Shostakovich events was the pointed juxtaposition of works from the 1930s’ generation who extended the older composer’s legacy in many and diverse ways. Thus the Arditti Quartet’s recital juxtaposed the Second Quartets of Sofia Gubaidulina and the late Alfred Schnittke: the former work (1987) a concise and immediate interplay of textures that reconciles darkness and light in affecting terms; the latter work (1980) an ‘in memoriam’ to director Larissa Shepitko, its movements – a brutal Allegro and cumulatively intense Adagio framed by two desolate Largo’s – draw on Orthodox chant to powerful emotional effect.

Kremerata Musica’s concert again drew instructive parallels: Schnittke’s String Trio (1985), a centenary homage to Alban Berg whose densely allusive manner is uniformly maintained across two elegiac movements, being followed (after the interval) by Gubaidulina’s String Trio (1988) – a much quirkier piece, its three movements spill over into each other through the sheer character of their ideas.

The London Sinfonietta’s concert featured the Gubaidulina piece that gave the weekend its name – yet, for all the virtuosity of Andrew Haveron and John Constable (realising the intricate playing techniques ‘inside the piano’ with evident dexterity), Dancer on a Tightrope (1993) never quite rose beyond the level of gestural immediacy.

Other ex-Soviet composers were more sparingly but no less appropriately represented. Arvo Pärt was featured with the violin and piano incarnation of his much-arranged Fratres (1977), Gidon Kremer extracting from it a startling degree of verve and agility, while Giya Kancheli was heard at something near his idiomatic best with the piano quartet L’istesso tempo (1997), its inferences and allusions are woven across a single-movement span of real atmospheric depth.

Both were inevitably overwhelmed in the context of the weekend by a rare performance of all three Compositions (1970-75) by Galina Ustvolskaya – the reclusive mystic whose earlier pieces left an indelible effect on her teacher Shostakovich, and whose last two decades of creativity (up to 1990) were devoted to works of often apocalyptic import. The present trilogy comprises ‘Dona nobis pacem’ for piccolo, tuba and piano; ‘Dies irae’ for piano, eight double basses and a large plywood block played with wooden mallets; and ‘Benedictus, qui venit’ for piano along with quartets of flutes and bassoons. Whether or not the works are best heard as a continuous, 45-minute whole, their stark, unrelieved intensity made for a listening experience like no other, and which, superbly directed from the piano by Reinbert de Leeuw who has championed this composer in the West, left a resounding impression.

Ustvolskaya could hardly be expected to attend, but it was a pleasure to see Valentin Silvestrov – a lifelong resident of Kiev – making a (first?) visit to Britain for several of his most representative chamber works. Quartetto Piccolo (1961) is so decidedly sensuous a take on Webernian concision to
remind one that the Ukrainian was almost alone among his Soviet contemporaries in confronting the Western avant-garde on his own terms, while the First Quartet (1974) brings expressive inwardness and angularity into convincing and personal accord.

Reinbert de Leeuw’s concert offered a similarly illuminating
take on Silvestrov’s changing creative concerns – the gently diffused textures of the concentrated Second Symphony (1965) followed by a setting of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1983) which is less a literal realisation as a treatment throwing expressive emphasis onto the dynamic and static music of the ensemble. Susan Bickley sang assuredly, and Gidon Kremer was no less attuned to the ethereal violin-and-piano interplay in Post-scriptum (1991) – a paradigm for Silvestrov’s music over the past quarter-century in the way its fragmentary ideas constantly re-emerge in new contexts, so as to project an open-endedness onto music permeated by its own finality. With few of his works (not least the seminal Fifth Symphony) having been performed here, the time is right for wider dissemination of Silvestrov’s music – never less than individual and rarely less than relevant in its creative concerns.

The fourth concert was devoted to the song-cycles of Shostakovich – a significant component of his output that, no doubt for reasons of language, has remained largely unexplored in the West. Sergei Leiferkus has made notable efforts in this respect, and his command of irony brought out the biting satire in “Preface to the Complete Edition of my Works” (1966) – Shostakovich’s deadpan homage to himself on his 60th birthday – and the astringent humour of Dostoyevsky’s nonsensical doggerel in “Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin” (1974). Along with the barbed sentiments of “Five Romances to texts from Krokodil magazine” (1965), these confirm that even in his declining years, the composer’s appreciation of the absurd and the bizarre never deserted him. From the opposite end of his career, ‘Maschenka’s Songs’ from “Hypothetically Murdered” (1931) and ‘Dundee’s Romance’ from “The Gunshot” (1930) find the young Shostakovich indulging a humour fashionably provocative but no less appealing.

It was a pleasure, too, to encounter the “Five Romances to words of Yevgeny Dolmatovsky” – an author whose Socialist Realist credentials long ago sealed his fate in the eyes of posterity, but who, as in this sequence of poems charting the course of a relationship, could evoke intimate emotions with no mean sincerity, and to which Shostakovich responds with music highly apposite in its wistful charm.

Ably supported by members of the Nash Ensemble, Joan Rodgers brought a wide range of expressive nuance to the “Seven Verses on poems by Alexander Blok” – song-settings that traverse the gamut of darker emotions in music of unremitting fervour. The cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry” (1948) inhabits a wider range of mood, often evoking elation and despair in a single phrase – as was vividly conveyed by Rodgers, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Ilya Levinsky. Dramatic situations played out in the abstract, informed by the expressive authenticity that, however closely derived from source, Shostakovich succeeded in making his own. Semyon Skigin provided piano accompaniment of uncommon perceptiveness.

The weekend was brought to a close by an enterprising novelty. Although it forms quite probably the largest aspect of his creative work, Shostakovich’s film music remains generally unknown beyond a few individual movements from suites. All credit, then, to John Riley – the leading English authority on these films – for devising and scripting this 100-minute journey through the composer’s ‘life at the movies’.

From his teenage years, providing live music as pianist at the end of the silent era, it continued with his innovative scores to “New Babylon” (1929), “Alone and Golden Mountains” (both 1931), the popular successes that were “Counterplan” (1932) and “Maxim’s Youth” (1934), and the resourceful scores for “Girlfriends” (1935) and “Korsinka’s Adventures” (1941). The war-years saw a classy propaganda effort in “Zoya” (1944), and their aftermath the powerful historical drama of “Pirogov” (1947) – with Stalin’s megalomania giving rise to such alarming historical revisionism as “The Fall of Berlin” (1950) – to which Shostakovich’s powerfully-rhetorical score aided his rehabilitation. His rousing music for “The Gadfly” (1955) is among his most melodious, while the film version of his lively musical “Cheryomushki” (1960) would surely have enjoyed greater currency but for the language barrier. Finally came the magisterial re-workings of Shakespeare in “Hamlet” (1964) and “King Lear” (1970): the former is among his most powerful scores, the latter a potent instance of music able to convey so much through so little.

Simon Russell-Beale’s detached but thoughtful delivery of the spoken commentary (adapted from the composer’s own words) ensured a viable conceptual focus for what might otherwise have remained a linking narrative. With the excerpts taken from these films always appropriate to their context, brief but characterful vocal contributions from Anna Azernikova, and conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald ensuring split-second co-ordination between sound and vision, as well as securing a sympathetic response from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the evening proved as absorbing as it was informative. Now that numerous of these three-dozen films are becoming commercially available in the West, an illustrated introduction such as this becomes the more valuable, and it is to be hoped the project will find a more permanent status. For now, it rounded off this enterprising weekend in the most entertaining way possible.

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