Kensington Symphony Orchestra – Debussy, Ullmann & Stravinsky

Images pour orchestre – Ibéria
Symphony No.2 [reconstructed by Bernd Wulff]
Petrushka [1911 version]

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 17 October, 2009
Venue: St John’s, Smith Square, London

Russell KeableThis was a very intelligently planned, and very well executed, programme, consisting of two 20th-century masterpieces and one which is fast approaching that status. Debussy’s Spanish travelogue was quite sparkling here; the Kensington Symphony Orchestra relishing the rich colours employed and the brilliant writing for all departments. The Kensington players didn’t put a foot wrong and gave a superb performance full of vigour and great excitement, but not forgetting the sensual middle movement, with its whiff of exotic perfumes on the night air.

To end we had the original version of Petrushka. This is seldom played in these days, mainly, I suppose, because of the cost of employing so many musicians, but it’s always been the version of this score and Stravinsky’s first thoughts are invariably right. Quite apart from some stunning orchestral playing, and every department distinguished itself, especially the brass, Jonathan Beatty’s excellent contribution at the piano was most welcome. Keable’s interpretation was also noteworthy for he seemed to find exactly the right mood and tempo for each individual scene and dance. Superb!

Viktor Ullmann was deported to Terezín in 1942, a concentration camp in all but name, and one which the Nazis hailed as a cultural centre, and he became a leading light in the cultural life there – as accompanist, concert organiser, critic and composer. Ullmann had studied with Schoenberg after the First War, during the 1920s he worked as an assistant to Alexander von Zemlinsky at the New German Theatre of Prague and in the mid 1930s he studied with Alois Hába. Ullmann’s Second Symphony was completed at Terezín in August 1944; two months later he was murdered in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz extermination camp. All that Ullmann left behind was a piano score, known as Piano Sonata No.7) which was full of indications of orchestration and the job of making a symphonic work fell to German musicologist Bernd Wulff.

What we have here is a tersely argued five-movement work, playing for about half-an-hour. The odd-numbered movements are filled with angular, difficult and elusive music, but yet it is always easy to understand – the Adagio is of Mahlerian darkness – and the even-numbered movements are lighter intermezzi, a Weillian march and a waltz. Despite the circumstances under which it was written it is an uplifting work, there is neither melancholy nor despair. This was understood by the musicians of the KSO and they gave their utmost to the music – fierce and defiant one minute, delicate and restrained the next. There is a small, but telling, part for a harpsichord and, very sensibly, this instrument was placed in front of the first violins to ensure that it would register. Russell Keable is to be praised for his championing of this work and, indeed, for his bringing forth such fine performances from his amateur orchestra. This was an evening to relish.

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