MUSIC / Freedom of expression: Julian Rushton on the premiere of Dmitri Smirnov's latest Blake setting in Leeds

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The Independent Culture
With no prospect of the Leeds Festival rising from the ashes, the Festival Chorus, now an independent society, holds the torch by continuing to commission new choral works. This particular enterprise marks the centenary of Leeds's city charter and the 135th anniversary of the chorus itself. The City and Yorkshire Arts assisted, and the concert received additional support from sources including, appropriately, the Holst Foundation. For Holst's Choral Symphony was a Leeds commission; and although the new work is by a Russian, it falls within this peculiarly British tradition.

The fixation of Dmitri Smirnov on the work of William Blake goes back many years, and his setting of English never jars. In any case, Blake's A Song of Liberty appears designed to read like a translation; and when set to music its arcane political detail is lost within its sweepingly optimistic message and its imagery of light and shadow, space, depth, gold, and fire. The nine movements of Smirnov's oratorio are clearly structured by references back to its opening at the middle and end, and offer various forms and textures grouped for contrast, like the other work in the programme, Mozart's unfinished C minor Mass. The movements include rich choral homophony, a solo aria, duos, a quartet, a disguised passacaglia and many unforced canons. Two long movements subtitled Fantasia allowed the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Jerzy Maksymiuk more independence.

The harmonic patina is attractive, dissonances resulting from an audible process of accumulation in which colour and dynamics clinch the musical argument. Smirnov's stylistic range permits him to risk a final movement of hieratic simplicity, in a pure Aeolian mode. Rhetorically this paid off, leading to a deservedly warm reception; certainly this intriguing and moving work deserves to be heard again soon (the concert was recorded for a future broadcast).

The scoring is based on Mozart's, lightly augmented, but the vivid sonorities and winding lines merge a Russian sense of colour with a new interpretation of the baroque. Smirnov writes gratefully for the chorus and the undoubted difficulties arising from expressive demands were well surmounted in a first performance of commitment and accuracy, although the 120-odd voices were occasionally overwhelmed by brass or by their outstanding chorus master, Simon Wright, on the organ. Despite the foggy acoustic, resulting in a loss of focus in quiet singing, most entries were pingingly clear; and the grand block triads, sliding Holst- like on to neighbouring dissonances, stood out thrillingly in the penultimate movement.

Maksymiuk might have given more, gesturally, to the chorus, and with such expert and sensitive woodwind players he could have offered freedom from the baton in Mozart's 'Incarnatus' cadenza. Otherwise his performance displayed this enigmatic work (the Smirnov is transparent by comparison) to good effect, and it was a pleasure to see him at the end climbing up to shake hands with chorus members, trombones, and other unglamorous persons.

Michael George made his brief contributions as bass soloist tell, and Adrian Thompson was the confident tenor. Louise Winter, billed as alto in the Smirnov, took the second soprano part in the Mozart, making a warm impression in the 'Laudamus' aria without quite being in command of the passage work. This reservation, however, may be blamed on the perfection of the soprano, Lynne Dawson. If one were really picky one might remark that her trill needs to be more open in Mozart; but in the 'Incarnatus' aria and the difficult ensembles of both Mozart and Smirnov, sweet and true, reliable and fluent, she sang like an angel.