National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at the Anvil

Boris Lyatoshynsky
Symphonic Picture: Grazhyna, Op. 58
Max Bruch
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
Richard Strauss
Don Juan, Op.20
Franz Liszt
Mazeppa, S. 100

Aleksey Semenenko (violin)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine

Volodymyr Sirenko


Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 21 October, 2023
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke, Hampshire

Established in 1918, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is the country’s principal orchestra, recognised as one of the finest in Eastern Europe. As part of its nationwide UK tour, the first in 20 years, the orchestra brought to the Anvil one concerto and three symphonic poems. Fielding some 80 players, the overall sound was big boned, the sheer weight occasionally enervating. Given events still unfolding in the Ukraine (two members of the orchestra are conscripted to the military), it came as no surprise that two of the works focused on freedom from oppression.

First off was the Symphonic Ballade Grazhyna by the father of modern Ukrainian music Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968). Composed in 1955 to commemorate the centenary of the death of the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, the work draws on his eponymous poem concerning the mythical Lithuanian chieftainess who battled with the Order of the Teutonic Knights and was eventually killed by her enemies. It’s a graphic and emotionally charged score and was given an atmospheric traversal, violas haunting in their opening motif and brass pugnacious in the work’s climaxes. Elsewhere, polished playing underlined Lyatoshynsky’s vivid colouring, and while well-judged tempi were uppermost, Volodymyr Sirenko couldn’t disguise the work’s episodic manner.

Soloist Aleksey Semenenko generated an agreeable account of Bruch’s Violin Concerto, considerate in bravura and self-communing with nothing pedestrian or sentimental. He was not the most charismatic of players, but his silvery tone caught the ear eloquently in the tender Adagio where melting intimacies and passion were equally involving. The Gypsy-influenced Finale had plenty of spirit and technical accomplishment, but Semenenko’s virtuosity was more apparent in Paganini’s Caprice in A minor, Op. 1/ 24 performed as an encore, the soloist now conspicuously more at ease.

After the interval Don Juan was given an emphatic rather than exhilarating outing. Strings were admirable for that impetuous opening flourish – Sirenko holding back this notorious entry until the audience had settled – thereafter he sustained drama and tension. Notwithstanding eloquent solo contributions from oboe and violin, more allowance could have been made for gentle expression. That said, there was no mistaking the majestic horn theme for the Don, more virile here than noble, and his leave taking was suitably measured and capped a blistering scherzando.

Liszt’s 1854 symphonic poem Mazeppa is no less flamboyant in its portrait of a terrifying ride of the Ukrainian nobleman tied naked to a horse before being set loose. It’s a tricky work to pull off, and this performance only partially succeeded in minimising its repetitions and banality, a work that prompted Debussy to describe as vulgar. This was a fiercely determined account, and while no white-knuckle ride it impressed for its commitment and energy. Mykola Lysenko’s Farewell Waltz Op, 39/1 proved to be an exhilarating encore.

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