I Musicanti
 
Leon Bosch, conductor
Arensky – Tchaikovsky Variations
Tchaikovsky arr. Stephenson – Rococo Variations
Alexandra Harwood – Sinfonia Concertante ‘The Secret Ball’ (world premiere)
Shostakovich, arr Stasevich – Sinfonietta after the String Quartet No. 8

4th November 2017, St John’s Smith Square, London

 

On (almost) the eve of the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I Musicanti presented a programme which spanned the old and the new: music from Imperial, Tsarist Russia (Arensky and Tchaikovsky) to an elegy to post-Revolution, post-war Russia in Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 8 (here arranged for string orchestra with timpani), and the world premiere of a new work written by a fifth great granddaughter of Catherine the Great, Alexandra Harwood.

Following on the success of their first series at St John’s Smith Square, I Musicanti’s latest series ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ showcases brand new works specially written for the ensemble by Alexandra Harwood alongside well-known pieces and lesser-known or neglected gems of repertoire. This is proving a very successful and satisfying “formula” for I Musicanti: the juxtaposition of old and new, familiar and lesser-known offers interesting comparisons and contrasts within programmes, and brings to the fore music which may otherwise have lain dormant and unheard (for example, Schubert’s Quartet in G D96 for flute, viola, cello and guitar, which was part of the May 2017 programme). The programmes are also just about right in terms of length, no more than 40 minutes maximum per half – an important consideration for those of us who have a longer train ride back to the leafy suburbs after a concert.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the success of the I Musicanti formula is the selection of musicians. The ensemble is flexible – sometimes a quartet, sometimes at septet, depending on the repertoire; on this occasion a small string orchestra, led by Fenella Humphreys. The musicians are hand-picked: as Leon Bosch, the driving force behind the ensemble, said to me after the first concert (which included Peter Donohoe on piano), “I can choose the best people to work with” – and this shows in the quality and commitment of performances and performers. This is not flashy, ego-driven playing, but really exceptional playing driven by common purpose and a shared love of the music.

The concert opened in Russia’s Imperial age with Arenksy’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, written as a tribute to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky, and which begins, choral-like, with a motif which mimics the sound of male voices in a Russian Orthodox Choir, expressed in the dark sonorities of two cellos, violin and viola. A lyrical work with seven variations of differing tempi and moods, it was an affecting and genial start to the evening, elegantly presented by I Musicanti.

For Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a work inspired by the composer’s love of Mozart, the ensemble was joined by South African cellist Peter Martens for a performance which combined understated virtuosity (the work contains some fiendish technical challenges for the cellist and few opportunities for the soloist to rest) with a delightful interplay between soloist and ensemble. This arrangement, by cellist and composer Allan Stephenson, restores the variations to their original order and assigns the original wind solos to the string principals (in this case Fenella Humphreys, violin, and Richard Harwood, cello, who both brought colour and verve to the music). Peter Martens’ tone was rich and colourful, balancing wit with seriousness to create a performance of great variety, character and warmth. This was the first performance of Allan Stephenson’s arrangement, the scoring for strings bringing a clarity to the music with no less texture or richness than the original.

After the interval, the world premiere of Alexandra Harwood’s Sinfonia Concertante: The Secret Ball, a work scored for string quintet surrounded by orchestra inspired by a story by Alekxander Afanas’ev (1826-71). A single movement takes the listener through a series of dances, opening with a grand, if slightly raunchy waltz followed by a polonaise, tango, polka, mazurka, tarantella, sarabande (using fragments of melodies from Corelli and Bach), minuet (with a fragment from Mozart), Bourree (Bach quoted again), Badinerie (Corelli), Galop and finally another waltz, the music fading away to nothing, as if the dancers are disappearing into the dawn. Alexandra is a noted composer of film music and the piece had, for me at least, a very visual quality with a clear narrative. In the lively, foot-tapping fragments of dance, one could easily picture the secret ball, dancers twirling on the dance-floor, while unspoken scenes and assignations perhaps took place in side rooms.

This work provided a striking contrast to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (in an arrangement for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) which followed. Here was a work of great emotional power which takes Shostakovich’s motto theme DSCH as its starting point, the motto returning in various guises throughout. The timpani provide an underlying martial character to the work (said to be dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and the war”, but also perhaps dedicated to the composer himself who in July 1960 discovered he was suffering from a debilitating muscular weakness). This was a compelling, sombrely elegaic and tautly managed performance, and a fine close to what I feel was I Musicanti’s best concert so far in their residency at St John’s Smith Square. This concert also represented a debut of sorts for double bass player Leon Bosch as it was his first appearance in London on the conductor’s podium, a role he seems to relish.


Further I Musicanti dates at SJSS

Sunday 21 January 2018 at 3pm – music by Arensky, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere), and Tchaikovsky

Sunday 3 June 2018 at 3pm – music by Prokofiev, Smirnov, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere) and Glinka

Do go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

Meet the Artist interview with Alexandra Harwood

Once again the impeccable musicianship, collective commitment and imaginative and varied programming of I Musicanti impressed with the first concert in their new series at St John’s Smith Square. Entitled ‘Alexandra and the Russians’, each recital in this 4-concert series features a new work by composer Alexandra Harwood, who can trace her Russian heritage back to Catherine the Great.

Bookended by Shostakovich’s taut and impassioned Piano Quintet Op 57 and Glinka’s good-natured and lyrical Sextet in E flat, Alexandra Harwood’s ‘Fiddler in Hell’ was a rollicking, foot-tapping romp and a great platform for violinist Fenella Humphreys’ colourful virtuosity and affinity with new music. Meanwhile, Schnittke’s mysterious and unsettling Hymnus II demonstrated the supreme technical control and musical understanding of Leon Bosch (double bass) and Richard Harwood (‘cello).

I Musicanti’s creative approach proves that it’s possible to present new music in accessible programmes which combine familiar works with lesser-known pieces. Future concerts in the series include music by Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Prokofiev, and Smirnov performed by some of the finest musicians active in the U.K. today.

Highly recommended ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

IMusicanti.co.uk

I Musicanti, an ensemble formed in 2013 by double bass player Leon Bosch (formerly principal double bass with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra), launched their triptych of concerts at St John’s Smith Square with an afternoon recital featuring the world premiere of a new work by South African composer Matthijs van Dijk as the centrepiece. This arresting piece was bookended by Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat, K493 and Schubert’s evergreen Quintet in A D667, the ‘Trout’.

I Musicanti includes artists who are all distinguished performers, who play in and with the best orchestras in the world, as soloists and chamber musicians. Sunday’s line up featured pianist Peter Donohoe, cellist Richard Harwood, violinist Tamás András and violist Robert Smissen, with Leon Bosch on double bass.

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Leon Bosch (photo: Hyatt Studios)

St John’s Smith Square (SJSS) is now my favourite London venue, alongside Wigmore Hall, and while I and my concert companion were waiting for the recital to begin (there was a slight hiatus due to some mysteriously missing piano music, which was, luckily, found!) we perused the SJSS programme of forthcoming concerts and decided what we would like to hear next….. It really is a lovely venue, with a fine acoustic for chamber music, solo piano, choral and orchestral music, and its staff are friendly and helpful.

This elegant programme was guaranteed to dispel any lingering post-Christmas blues. The Mozart was elegantly-turned, warm and affectionate, while the Schubert rippled along as cheerfully as the eponymous fish, all holiday melodies and sunlit rhythms, with some charming interplay between the piano and the other instrumentalists. Peter Donohoe’s touch was bright and joyful, as befits the character of the music. Throughout the concert, there was a very palpable sense of all the musicians thoroughly enjoying both the music and the act of performing together, creating a lovely atmosphere in the venue. When I commented on this to Leon Bosch after the concert, he declared “I can choose who I work with” and he must be applauded for selecting musicians who display not only equal talent but also a shared sense of purpose and musical friendship.

The new work by Matthijs van Dijk, But All I Wanna Do Is Dance, was composed as a response to the extraordinary and unsettling events of 2016 which seem, in the composer’s own words, to have unleashed “a never-ending wave of anger, frustration, hate and bigotry in all shapes and sizes – all issues that need to be addressed, of course, and, once one is aware of them, unable to ignore”. The work is not intended as “a joyous declaration”, but rather a plea against the enormity of world events, an elegy to our inner child, and a wish to be allowed to forget what is going on, if only momentarily.

A haunting solo on the viola begins the work before it begins to open up with the addition of the piano and the rest of the ensemble. This meditative section is interrupted by febrile rhythms, suggesting lively dancing but always tempered with a sense of frustration and a yearning for the innocence of childhood, a time when one didn’t really know or understand what was happening in the world…..

I Musicanti returns to St John’s Smith Square on 5 March with an afternoon concert featuring another world premiere by South African composer Werner Bosch. Further details here