Tag Archives: Shostakovich

RSNO / Boreyko

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There’s an understandable nervousness among concert programmers to include Russian music at this sensitive moment. But when the RSNO stuck to its guns with its advertised Shostakovich Spectacular over the weekend, it was on sure ground. No-one handed out criticism more viciously, with more obfuscating genius, than Shostakovich in his subliminal, unprovable protests against Stalin and his terrorising Soviet regime. Nowadays, we recognise his music for its true meaning.

And that meaning was made all the more compelling with the unplanned presence of Andrey Boreyko, the St Petersburg-born artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic who replaced an indisposed James Conlon. Boreyko recently voiced his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by duly cancelling all his Russian concert dates, and prefaced this programme with Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine, an emotional scene-setter to the politically-loaded Shostakovich.

The dramatic switch from this plaintive totemic 19th century anthem against Russian repression to the fearsome weaponry of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, represented here by two of the movements (arranged by the absent Conlon) from its derivative orchestral suite, was pure theatre, much in the spirit of an opera that in 1934 so enraged Stalin to publicly vilify its composer. It didn’t miss the mark in stirring Saturday’s contemporary Glasgow audience.

By this point, Boreyko had the RSNO fully alert to his intentions, plumbing the depths of the initial Passacaglia to an extent that imposed constant checks and frustration on its ripening ambitions, which in turn sharpened the impact of The Drunkard, a madcap burlesque played with vile spit and sardonic sting.

Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski’s flirtatious confrontation with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 made for the perfect follow-up. It’s a work, written for the composer’s son as a test piece for his high school graduation, that professed no concealed motives other than giving the young Maxim a relatively easy time, cleverly made to sound, by virtue of its supersonic sparkle, like a virtuoso showpiece.

Trpčeski invested wit and wile in a performance so laid back he literally bent backwards at throwaway moments to adopt a near horizontal position. He opened with dazzling but captivatingly suppressed finger work, always with a threat of a smirk, throwing down a gauntlet to Boreyko and the RSNO to respond with equal impishness. It worked, the ebullience of the outer movements monetarily calmed by the still, luscious central presence of the lyrical Andante.

Not surprisingly, after leaping off the stool for the final chord, Trpčeski chose to encore unconventionally with the help of RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi and its Belarusian principal cello Alexei Kiseliov in the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2. The internationalism of the impromptu ensemble held its own fascination, the playing brilliantly incisive with a strong, and appropriate, hint of belligerence.

The second half brought us Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, famous in 1937 for its confessional soubriquet, “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, but outwardly, as the composer was to hint later through rather clandestine, third party means, more a subversive snipe at cultural dictatorship.

The sense of restraint imposed by Boreyko in the jagged opening, the mountainous climaxes that bore a paradoxical robotic emptiness, the puckish rat-tat-tat of the Scherzo, the expansive, molten angst of the Largo, and the pungent irony of the Finale – what erstwhile RSNO music director Alexander Lazarev once described as “hollow rejoicing” – all came torridly together in this energised, if very occasionally unclean, performance.

But the overall message of the evening was powerful, provocative and relevant, even if much of that came about by chance. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: James Montgomery)

SCO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Mozart wrote his “Posthorn” Symphony – or rather modelled it out of existing music from an earlier Serenade – during his younger Salzburg days. Shostakovich’s Symphony No 14, on the other hand, is a product of a composer at the opposite end of his life, written in 1969 while he was recovering from a second heart attack and clearly – given its all-pervading theme of death – consumed by thoughts of mortality. Programme these two works together and the outcome is stark, challenging and thought-provoking.

All the more so when the spectre of Covid still dictates social practices and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra continues to deliver its shortened programmes without an interval. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth took full advantage of this juxtapositional opportunity inspiring performances that expressed the perfection and precision of both works, but equally capitalised on their differential elements to striking effect.

That’s not to say that the Mozart, originating from music originally composed to celebrate the end of the academic year in Salzburg, is all joy and rapture. Right from the start Wigglesworth shaped its gathering moments with thoughtfulness and finesse, its phrases lovingly shaped and gently insistent. There was always a spring in the SCO’s step, though, a light-footed Italianate joie-de-vivre which reached its ultimate outlet in the exuberant finale.

The contrast with the opening bars of the Shostakovich could hardly have been more marked. For this, the orchestra, pared down to strings and percussion, was joined by soprano Elizabeth Atherton and bass Peter Rose, whose reading of this unconventional symphony – effectively a song cycle to texts contemplating the cold reality of unnatural death, but with enough organic cohesion to justify its nomenclature – was laced with palpable emotion, energised containment and neatly-gauged interaction.

The scene was set in an instant, the strings eliciting Shostakovich’s gaunt, austere opening textures with chilling simplicity, amplified by the rich sonority of Rose’s first utterances, Lorca’s De Profundis in Russian, to which the lowest strings issued a sombre undercurrent. The allusions to Britten are tangible, not surprising given he was the work’s dedicatee. But while his shadow looms persistently, Shostakovich’s progressive voice remains singularly probing and magnificent throughout. 

Atherton’s performance identified the symphony’s visceral core, emotionally and visually provocative. Rose cut a more stoical, trenchant persona. Both were acutely reactive to the concentrated brilliance of the orchestral backdrop, a canvas swarming with virtuoso solos and highly-evocative percussion effects. Wigglesworth’s cool control had the effect of heightening the dramatic tension and, at key moments, its iridescent flights of ecstasy. A moving performance, all the more so for the context it appeared in.

Ken Walton

Shakespeare By Divas

 Nigel Osborne talks to KEN WALTON about composing the music for a new theatrical production of King Lear with a cast of opera singers 

When Shostakovich composed music for a 1940s Soviet stage production of King Lear, audiences may have been surprised to hear Jingle Bells appear as one of its main melodies. Eighty years on, Scots-based composer Nigel Osborne has called on songs he claims he heard as a foetus as inspiration for the music he has written for the same Shakespearean tragedy.

“I’m not being weird,’ insists the retired Edinburgh music professor. “Babies from the third trimester remember music heard in the womb. My mother, from Scots-Irish stock, enjoyed singing, especially those popular songs of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. I know that at that time in her pregnancy she was very worried – my father was suffering a nervous breakdown. She would sing herself to sleep with songs by Doris Day and the likes. I’m sure I emotionally remember that.”

For Osborne, these seemed the perfect model for the Fool’s songs, “so reminiscent of postwar Britain – soggy, funny and nostalgic.” As award-wining opera director Keith Warner intended to set his Grange Festival production of Lear in postwar Britain, why not respond with a corresponding musical style?

Mention of opera is key to understanding the novelty of this production. A quick look at the cast list helps explain why: veteran Wagnerian bass Sir John Tomlinson as Lear; tenor Sir Thomas Allen as Gloucester; soprano Susan Bullock as Goneril; tenor Kim Begley as the Fool; the brilliant upcoming soprano (and Edinburgh graduate) Louise Alder as Cordelia; the list of opera stars goes on. But why stage a theatre production at an opera and dance festival played by a cast of sixteen singers?

“It began with discussions between Keith and singers like John and Kim around the fact that the world doesn’t know opera singers can act,” Osborne explains. “They wanted to create a show that proved they can. King Lear is a great choice, one of the darkest, most emotional pieces you can imagine. This is where a singer’s voice quality is unique. They don’t bellow, but exert extraordinary control over every shade of their voices. They bring something special to Shakespeare.”

As such, this project has given Osborne the opportunity to think way out the box. For a start, there are no instruments involved. “We had these great singers, so I said why aren’t the voices the orchestra, in fact the whole sound design? They um’d and ah’d a bit, then turned round and said ‘great idea’.”

John Tomlinson in rehearsal as King Lear. Credit Clive Barda


If anyone else had suggested such an approach, they might have been laughed off the set, but Osborne has a proven track record in making people do things out of their comfort zone. He has dedicated much of his life applying his musical energy and creativity to aid work in the worst war-torn areas of the world, on projects to rehabilitate displaced children in the Balkans, India, Middle East and Africa. 

Nearer to home – he lives in the Scottish Borders – Osborne is currently engaged in a game-changing music therapy programme with the NHS in England, helping frontline workers to write songs as a means of alleviating their own trauma in the face of Covid. He’s convinced well-known artists to work with him – Sting, K T Tunstall and Eric Clapton among them – creating online technology and providing the musical support needed to help participants achieve extraordinary results.

“We’ve had all sorts of musical styles: jazzy ballads, folk and rock, and stuff that’s on the fringes of Kurt Weill-like music theatre,” he says. “One group of frontline surgeons and GPs wrote of the impossible decisions they were having to make every day, that sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and who’s going to die today?” 

Theatre has played its own part in Osborne’s renowned rehabilitation programmes. He’s the house composer for the Ulysses Theatre in Istria, where in 2000, not long after the war in Yugoslavia, he cut his teeth with King Lear. “We invited people from different parts of the former Yugoslavia to work together,” he recalls. “Most of the actors had opposed fascism and genocide and had been exiled or imprisoned. Lear is about a kingdom divided. It was like them telling their own story.”

And it was in Istria that Osborne explored ways of using extended vocal techniques in theatre. “It was through phonetics,” he says. “To be really crude about it, you can ask actors to make the sound of the wind, as they often do, and it’s terrible, because it begins as a mannered parody and ends up falling to bits after a few nights because there’s no discipline underpinning it.”

Fast forward to the Grange Festival today, where Osborne has been working on Lear with opera singers who thrive on discipline. “Singers hate the arbitrary,” he insists, which has allowed him to explore more deeply the possibilities and intricacies of a soundtrack driven by detailed analysis of the phonetics in such phrases as Lear’s “Blow, winds!”. 

The end result is a conflict of extreme musical worlds; those “soggy, sentimental post-war songs”, and a mysterious underpinning modernism built on vocalised harmonies etched out of weird scales. Sometimes these worlds collide. “Step by step, a whole-tone chord can become a 1950s George Shearing harmony. The brutal sounds of nature become nostalgic reminiscences.”

With such extensive experience of composing for opera and theatre – he was master of music at London’s Globe Theatre, and his operas have premiered world-wide from Glyndebourne and Scottish Opera to Oslo and Vienna – Osborne has the wit and confidence to allow the cast a certain creative flexibility. Not every aspect of his score is prescriptive. “Most singers have had to follow the detailed instructions of composers their whole lives. At the very moment they don’t, I’m not going to come along and give them instructions. Everything, then, is in their hands.”

Such moments, he says, are simply intended “to insinuate”, and they are liberating for the performers and the play. Is a Shakespeare audience ready for it? “I’m imagining a lot of knee-jerk reactions, but I’m happy with what I’ve done. It doesn’t bother me if some don’t like it. I just hope people will see something profound going on.” 

The Grange Festival’s production of King Lear runs from 14-17 July. Full information at www.thegrangefestival.co.uk

SCO / Shostakovich

SCO / Prokofiev / Kaprálová /Bacewicz / Shostakovich
Perth Concert Hall

The search for workable repertoire by orchestras during the performance strictures of this pandemic has led to the unearthing of some pleasurable novelties. They are, of course, all geared to smaller ensemble sizes, but they are by no means diminished in interest and impact.

Who for instance, in normal times, would ever have programmed Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin, intended by the composer not just for a single player, but – with teaching purposes in mind – for several players in unison? With this, the latest SCO online concert from Perth, comes an ideal opportunity. 

Led by Stephanie Gonley, whose presence whips up a valiant head of steam from the outset, the SCO violin coterie make homogenous mischief out of Prokofiev’s angular devilry and softer lyrical sweetness playing musical tag with each other. 

The whole programme offers a similar bittersweet sensation. Two wind pieces by Viteslava Kaprálová and Grazyna Bacewicz maintain that mood, the first a flighty Wind Trio, the latter a punchy Wind Quintet. The playing is extraordinary, which in a way makes up for the neoclassical dryness that is, up to a point, this music’s piquant charm. 

Kaprálová’s Trio  – her premature death in 1940 at the age of 25, left works such as this unfinished – is heard in Stéphane Egeling’s reconstruction which utilises material from her piano music to plug the compositional gaps. The result is a testament to her craftsmanship and caustic wit, all of which is captured by oboist Robin Williams, clarinettist William Stafford and bassoonist Alison Green.

They are joined by Patrick Broderick (horn) and Bronte Hüdnott (flute) in the Bacewicz Quintet, where the fuller, more diverse, wind ensemble revel in its joyous virtuosity and riot of energy and repose. The spacious Perth Concert Hall and its warm acoustics provide a warm embrace.

It’s back to strings for the final work, Shostakovich’s early Two Pieces for String Octet, Op 11, written with a discernible nod to Mendelssohn’s more famous Octet, which the SCO ensemble acknowledge through the natural meatiness of this wholesome instrumental grouping. A rueful opening piece is countered by the robust second, the expansiveness of Shostakovich’s expressiveness, from plaintiff reflection to searing aggression, fully and resolutely explored. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch via www.sco.org.uk