Music of Today – Smirnov & Firsova

Dmitri Smirnov
Elegy in Memory of Edison Denisov (1997)
Elena Firsova
Before the Thunderstorm, Op.70 (1994)

Alexander Ivashkin (cello)
Sarah Leonard (soprano)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

What an innovative idea Music of Today is. Before the Philharmonia Orchestra’s main evening offering, the Royal Festival Hall opens its doors to all – this is a free, no-ticket, initiative, which doesn’t involve the 7.30 concert (but why not stay on?) – to focus on a contemporary composer. Alternatively, if armed with tickets for the big event, why not arrive earlier and spend 45 minutes in the company of the dedicated Philharmonia musicians who stretch their demanding schedule even further to accommodate these forays into today’s music?

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.

McBurney’s 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 (Smirnov’s 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, Elegy’s 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 Firsova’s 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 Philharmonia’s 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 Philharmonia’s 7.30 concert that evening includes Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony conducted by Lorin Maazel
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • Book Online:
  • Following the Smirnov/Firsova event, the Philharmonia played a concert under Yevgeny Svetlanov – click here to read Mike Langhorne’s review

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