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Recreating a musical landmark for the Britten weekend

PUBLISHED: 17:11 04 November 2019 | UPDATED: 17:11 04 November 2019

Soprano Julia Sitkovetsky and pianist Roger Vignoles at Snape Maltings' Britten Weekend 2019  Photo: Snape Maltings

Soprano Julia Sitkovetsky and pianist Roger Vignoles at Snape Maltings' Britten Weekend 2019 Photo: Snape Maltings

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Review: Britten and Russia, Snape Maltings, October 18 – 20

Cellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Roger Vignoles at Snape Maltings' Britten Weekend 2019  Photo: Snape MaltingsCellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Roger Vignoles at Snape Maltings' Britten Weekend 2019 Photo: Snape Maltings

Britten and Shostakovich first met in 1960 at a concert in London that included works by both composers, the Soviet's first cello concerto and Britten's Variations and fugue on a theme of Purcell. For this year's Britten Weekend Snape Maltings assembled an astute programme of works mainly, though not exclusively, by the two composers and culminating in the same programme as that when the composers first came face to face.

On Friday October 19 the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the baton of Jac van Steen, performed two substantial works, the first being Britten's Cello Symphony (significantly not a concerto). It derived some of its ideas from the Shostakovich concerto and also the exceptional playing of Msitlav Rostropovich who, with his soprano wife Galina Vishnevskaya became two of Britten's closest and warmest friends. The work is not especially approachable and there is little in the way of engaging or memorable tunes that one finds in the concertos of Dvorak, Elgar or, indeed, Shostakovich. Nevertheless, the cellist Alban Gerhardt gave a splendid performance, playing with a powerful authority and the orchestral playing was both incisive and eloquent.

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Shostakovitch's tenth symphony contains much arresting music and the explosive second movement is often considered a portrayal of Stalin's 'reign of terror'. It was a thrilling experience; performers and listeners right on the edge. The expansive opening movement was carefully controlled and brought to a thunderous climax but without loss of clarity.

The following afternoon recreated the 1960 concert, the Britten sounding as fresh and inspired as it did when first falling on young ears as the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. BBC Young Musician winner Laura van der Heijden gave an excellent reading of Shostakovich's first cello concerto, engaging and witty in the outer movements but plumbing serious depths in the middle two movements. Her immaculate poise and control in the cadenza was quite exceptional.

To conclude the weekend Jac van Steen skilfully directed the orchestra in a brilliant display of virtuosity and elan with Rachmaninoff's third symphony. The inventive orchestration shimmered and glowed and the final bars were nothing less than breathtaking.

Gareth Jones

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