The members of Musikkollegium Winterthur and conductor Michael Sanderling made some interesting choices for their first streamed performance of 2021. In an East European themed programme, they selected two rarely performed works conceived in the first decade of the 20th century by creators who are clearly not among the first coming to one’s mind when considering the Russian school of composition’s heritage. Both Alexander Glazunov and Sergei Taneyev – pianists, composers, professors, long-term directors of the St Petersburg (Glazunov) and Moscow (Taneyev) Conservatories – are arguably better known for the students they taught – Glazunov taught Shostakovich, Taneyev taught Rachmaninov and Scriabin – than for their own works.

Michael Sanderling
© Marco Borggreve

Glazunov’s ten-minute Solemn Overture, a work without a concrete programme, sounds very much like an academic exercise. The handling of the thematic material is quite conventional, with motifs introduced by the woodwinds and horns, by the violins or just by the clarinets, and successively taken over by the entire orchestra. Avoiding any sense of pompousness, Sanderling tried to emphasise Glazunov’s talent as an orchestrator, his ability to intertwine multiple voices.

Conceived at the same time as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Strauss’ Elektra, Taneyev’s Concert Suite for violin and orchestra is as much a backwards-looking (though not very much anchored in Russian traditions) opus as Glazunov’s overture. A scholar of contrapuntal techniques, Taneyev composed his five-movement concerto not in a Classical form, but by grafting a Romantic skin onto a Baroque-inspired suite. A hybrid work, unified by a recurrent motif that appears, more or less obviously, throughout the movements, Taneyev's only composition for solo violin is certainly more than just a conduit for displaying the soloist’s virtuosity. Helped by an ensemble of dedicated instrumentalists, Sanderling drew attention to the explicitly (Gavotte, Tarantella) or implicitly (Waltz, Mazurka in the Theme and Variations) evoked dances, to the lavish fugato shared between violin and orchestra in the fourth variation, to a myriad of interesting details. Coping without any hint of hesitation at all the pyrotechnical details of the difficult score, Ilya Gringolts displayed a warm, penetrating tone in the Schumannesque third movement, Märchen. Overall, the sound of his violin integrated remarkably well with the orchestra’s.

There is no stronger argument that could be made in favour of the importance of melodic inventiveness in any musical endeavour than comparing what one heard before and after the brief interval. The rather bland tunes in the two Russian scores were replaced by the outpouring of Bohemian folk-music inspired melodies that abound in every movement of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major. Under Sanderling’s attentive eye, almost all of them were wonderfully brought forward by this talented group of instrumentalists. The flute solos in the first and last movements were quite memorable, as were the dialogue between woodwinds in the Adagio, the trumpets’ call and the later cello intervention in the theme and variations finale.

The current pandemic has created opportunities for several lesser-known ensembles, such as the Musikkollegium Winterthur, to gain – via streaming – a deserved global following. Hopefully, it is a trend that will continue in normal circumstances as well.

This performance was reviewed from the Musikkollegium Winterthur live video stream