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.