Studio for New Music, Magdalen Auditorium, Oxford

Glimpse of a bygone revolution
Click to follow

A highlight of Oxford Contemporary Music's enterprising Russian season was the first visit to the UK of the Moscow-based Studio for New Music, Russia's leading contemporary music group, to give a fascinating programme of post-revolutionary works. All part of a process of rediscovery for Russians, as well as others, of the music of this brief, heady period of revolutionary idealism in the Twenties, before the dead hand of socialist realism descended.

A highlight of Oxford Contemporary Music's enterprising Russian season was the first visit to the UK of the Moscow-based Studio for New Music, Russia's leading contemporary music group, to give a fascinating programme of post-revolutionary works. All part of a process of rediscovery for Russians, as well as others, of the music of this brief, heady period of revolutionary idealism in the Twenties, before the dead hand of socialist realism descended.

Roslavets was supposedly the originator of a "new system for the organisation of sounds"; his Chamber Symphony sounded more like the last exotic flowerings of romanticism – sort of early Schoenberg on speed. It gave a flavour, though, of the this ensemble's style – very lively, vigorous playing, with an especially vibrant brass sound. Zhivotov's Fragments for Nonet was much harder-edged – not a million miles from the Stravinsky of a few years earlier, but with genuinely individual touches.

Polovinkin's "Telescope III" was a quite remarkable piece – rather too long and disparate, but full of striking musical gestures, specially the whirlwind of sound at the opening, and some bizarre march-like interludes. "Rails", by Vladimir Deshevov, was one of those romanticisations of the machine scarcely credible now, which had the virtue of brevity if not much else.

The second half contained much more familiar names. Prokofiev's genial Overture on Jewish Themes reassured us that all was not strenuous constructivism and vehemence. Whereas Aleksandr Mosolov's "Newspaper Advertisments" reminded us that this composer actually did write more than one piece; these highly objective texts were delivered in droll style, with evocative facial expressions, by a nameless lady.

A curiosity, next, was an arrangement by Vladislav Soifer of four of Shostakovich's Preludes Op 34 for ensemble – imaginative and colourful character pieces played here with great aplomb. And then there was Mosolov's immortal paean to heavy industry, "Factory" – a crude but undeniably effective tour de force played with great zest and a certain humour (something presumably absent from its early performances) by the Moscow musicians, who managed to make themselves sound almost as big as the Moscow Philharmonic – the brass were quite terrifying. The audience didn't quite leap to its feet like the one in a Paris works canteen in the Twenties, but their enthusiasm was such that we did get an encore.

An intriguing glimpse into a legendary era, the concert produced no forgotten masterpieces, but conductor Igor Dronov and his musicians gave vivid and exciting performances of consistent musical interest. Let's hope we will be seeing them over here again soon.

Comments