This was a programme celebrating the often overlooked work of Alexander Glazunov – the composer whose Seasons sparkle with the elaborate flecks of a lost Imperial Russia and the teacher of Shostakovich, whose Russian musical interpretation of a Shakespeare tragedy began the concert. Glazunov’s The Seasons was contrasted by the earlier work of Modest Mussorgsky, whose cycle Songs and Dances of Death, sung by Yuri Vorobiev, provided a dramatic high point for last week’s Thursday Night Series concert. Mussorgsky was one of five composers who commanded the middle years of the 19th century, resonating with the thoughts of Russian philosopher, Nikolay Chernyshevsky - “the true function of art is to explain life and comment on it”.

Yuri Vorobiev © Askonas Holt
Yuri Vorobiev
© Askonas Holt

Glazunov’s The Seasons was triumphant and masterful, as was the entire programme – a display of personality and identity, encompassing the social, cultural, and political history of Russia over the last 200 years. We were raised from the depths – the tragic tale of King Lear, through the dark and deep lilts from Vorobiev in the Mussorgsky. However, this can be seen as a tale, the glitz of upper class Russian society with such feudal tones.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov scarcely put a foot wrong in their depictions, save for perhaps some enthusiastic brass players at the beginning of the tutti entry of The Seasons: Winter. The orchestra was responsive, tight and resounding, especially in the brass in the Shostakovich. This was a vast soundscape of a piece, which only really left one in need of a film screen. The performance of the epic Shakespearean tragedy provided a delightful start to the programme. The music became abstract, out of context with the film, with the elegant and poignant flute notes mirrored and expanded by the rest of the woodwind, creating minimalistic waves of intensity.

Shostakovich’s music mirrors the twisted and neurotic plot of the play, emphasised by the rich, swirling strings of the BBC SSO. The emotional depth of the tragedy and foreboding darkness of the piece, was emphasised in the relative lower string octaves. The handsome lower registers of the orchestra prevailed, save for the floating woodwinds. The drama and theatre was certainly captured – a fraught and animalistic rage was brought out by the marimba, in an oddly Carnival of the Animals-esque sense. Preceding the Mussorgsky it cast a shadow and left a cliffhanger to be resolved.

The programme evolved with the charming Yuri Vorobiev performing an orchestrated version of Songs and Dances of Death. His voice is big, there is no doubt, but I found the orchestral version of the cycle (here by Edison Denisov) to be slightly inappropriate in this instance. Though there is no question of the volume and still youthful nature of his voice or his emotional contact, but the climactic moments seemed swallowed by the orchestra. The glints in his eyes and the way he sang the songs with ease and naturalness, might have been better suited to the original piano accompaniment, a more intimate setting. The cycle was enrapturing, still delicate, and the BBC SSO so very attentive and exacting in the collective feel and translation. It was a rich but reigned-in sound from all performers.

Though programmatically speaking we were moving forwards, we were somewhat moving backwards in terms of Russian history and revolution. The celebrated Glazunov presents such a different time, a comment on life so far from the bottom of the feudal table – remembering this was at the end of a time when Russian was still the language of the peasants, and the ruling class, the urbanites and courtiers preferred French. It contrasted starkly with Mussorgsky's and Shostakovich’s responses to life. The muted trumpets in The Seasons created an unusual texture and the undulating lines throughout sat well under the dance. There was a stylish clarinet solo from Yann Ghiro.

Though it is not perhaps in the progressive sense with The Seasons, Glazunov engages with time, and the passing and circular aspects of it. This concert was warm and intricate, despite the colder aspects in and surrounding the music – a wonderful collaboration between orchestra, conductor and bass voice.

***11