Music Review of The Britten, Shostakovich Festival Orchestra – The RNCM, Manchester

In times when the media presents an image of ever-worsening Anglo-Russian relations, as if we’re right back in the Cold War, the Britten Shostakovitch Festival Orchestra (BSFO) is a shining ray of hope, bringing together some of the best offerings of both nations, both in terms of their respective great composers and emerging young talent. The seventy or so musicians were split more or less 50/50 by nationality although interestingly on a roughly two thirds majority ratio of females to males (which was apparently determined by auditions rather than positive discrimination, with everyone, save the conductor, being of conservatoire age).

Dmitri Shostakovitch and Benjamin Britten actually met on a number of occasions between 1960 and 1975 (even dying only a year apart from each other), during some of the most difficult years of Anglo-Soviet mistrust and it was in this same spirit of culture being a shared unity transcending international rivalries that the BSFO was formed. The current BSFO tour covers a very wide ranging repertoire but only of music by Russian and British composers and the programme tonight included works by Vaugh-Williams and Rachmaninov as well as the two composers giving the orchestra their name. The pieces chosen seem to have been selected to blend with each other to the extent you could not clearly tell by style which works were Russian or British, with vibrant and powerful emotions invoked from start to finish.

The opening piece ‘Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tullis’ by Vaughan Williams was performed exclusively by string instruments and showed a much more assertive and powerful side to this composer than his better known more dreamy works such as ‘The Lark Ascending.’ With the full orchestra brought in for the next piece ‘Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini’ by Rachmaninov, Ilya Chirskov took centre stage on the grand piano. Founding artistic director Jan Lathan-Koenig conducted this very varied piece (and all the others), starting with what will be familiar to many, the basis for the theme of TV’s South Bank Show and culminating in a romantic movement which has certainly found its way into several movies and TV adverts.

The contribution of Britten’s work to the evening were Four Sea Interludes, taken from his celebrated opera ‘Peter Grimes’. Perhaps these pieces were a little juxtaposed in being performed as a continuous single item but it certainly made for a fitting tribute to the range of Britten, with many of the powerful and dramatic sections contained having an almost distinctly Russian feel, akin to works like Shostakovitch’s Leningrad Symphony. Ironically, the next piece, which was actually written by Shostakovich was a march of the kind more typically played by the likes of the band of the Grenadier Guards, sounding as if it had been written by a Victorian Englishman. For this piece, most of the woodwind players left the stage, being replaced by saxophonists and even an accordion player. The final three pieces were a polka, waltz and another march, each of which had been given the Shostakovitch treatment, giving full vent to the remarkable variety of instruments assembled (the waltz having become famous as the theme for Stanley Kubrick’s last film ‘Eyes Wide Shut’).

The full programme lasted nearly two hours (including the interval); longer than most classical concerts and being of exceptional quality throughout. The BSFO is a wonderful concept, serving many functions including giving an international platform for new professional musicians, providing a forum for the combined works of two great composers together with their compatriots and of course, providing a cultural bridge of friendship between two countries whose relationship down the years has, to say the least, been chequered. A great concept and a great night out.

Reviewer – John Waterhouse
on – 21/9/19