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Vremena Goda Orchestra/Bulakhov
The Seasons Italian-Russian Festival in St Petersburg (& Moscow)

Italo-Russian Festival triumphs with new works, young performers and unusual repertoire.

By Neil McGowan

Innovative programming is a rarity in Russian classical music these days. The demise of the USSR (and its funding for the Arts) unexpectedly resulted in not more interesting listening, but less – now that orchestras have to be more-or-less self-financing, the same trend towards “Classical Pops” is happening in Russia as elsewhere.

All the more welcome, therefore, is the annual appearance of Moscow’s Vremena Goda orchestra in “The Seasons” Festival in St Petersburg – this year’s theme being Italo-Russian music.

The opening concert took place in the Great Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonia – a venue which still requires some mental concentration to avoid calling it “The Leningrad Phil”. Viktor Kuleshov gave a dazzling account of Vivaldi’s “The Seasons”, playing all four concerti without a break. No less remarkable was the quality of string playing from the orchestra itself, honed to a fine standard by maestro Bulakhov – it cannot be coincidental that he’s a former violinist himself. The second half of the program was given over to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The work itself is somewhat uneven, and the excellent chamber choir LEGE ARTIS didn’t really have enough to get their teeth into. The soloists are more generously provided-for – Svetlana Rossiyskaya was particularly stylish in the mezzo arias, although Giovanna Manci seemed a little unwell in the soprano pieces.

A highlight of the Festival was Tchaikovsky’s Souvenirs de Florence (op 70) in a spirited performance with Bulakhov at the helm. The last movement kicked off at a lick that seemed impossibly ambitious at first, but with careful pacing the adrenalin was still coursing through until the final bars, bringing plaudits from the audience that were richly deserved. Contemporary composer Mikhail Bronner’s “And tomorrow will be better than yesterday” (for alto saxophone, trumpet and orchestra) seemed a little over-extended, but was given a bravura performance by two soloists yet to reach the age of twenty – Sergei Kolesov (saxophone) and wunderkind trumpeter Kirill Soldatov (still aged only 17, but already appearing as a soloist both with Vremena Goda and Virtuosi Moskvy).

Another new work in the Festival was the piano concerto “A Game of Chess” by the exciting young Krasnoyarsk composer Irina Belova (b. 1975). It’s a remarkable piece which develops the tradition of the “soviet piano concerto” into something that is thoroughly contemporary, yet clearly acknowledging its legacy to works like the Khachachurian Concerto, and the Shostakovich Concerto No 1. Ksenia Ovodova (also from Krasnoyarsk) skipped through the phenomenal technical requirements of the work with ease and grace, and found the l Pounce, where are you? yricism lurking beneath the spikier surface. It’s a sobering thought that she’s only 14. However, Alexandra Elina in Sammartini’s Recorder Concerto displayed no lesser technical prowess – and Alexandra is only 9.

A complete change of medium and mood was offered by the Italian piano-duet brothers, Aurelio and Paolo Pollice. Personally I would have preferred their program presented in the reverse order? Their staggering rendition of the Stravinsky’s piano-duet version of The Rite Of Spring was a piece-de-resistance, but the first half made-up of lollipop items (primarily arrangements of Italian Opera numbers for C19th domestic performance) would have been better coming afterwards.

The vocal highlights finally came from Madama Manci, however, who offered a bel-canto treat including Tosti, Bellini and Verdi. The central item was the closing scene of Norma (Act 2), in which Manci was joined by Svetlana Rossiyskaya as Adalgisa – in the true spirit of an Italo-Russian festival, the combination of an Italian soprano with a Russian mezzo, orchestra and conductor produced a completely convincing and stylistic account which brought the house down. It would be unfair not to mention in the same program a super performance of the little-known Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement of “Three Arias from Glinka” for Chamber Orchestra, with a sparkling cello solo as an added bonus.

Muscovites unable to attend the St Petersburg part of the Festival had the chance to hear some of the highlights at a special concert in the Concert Hall of the Tolstoy Museum on 19th February, including Svetlana Rossiyskaya (this time partnered by fellow Helikon Opera soloist Marina Andreeva) in the Norma extract, the Souvenirs de Florence, and the Rimsky/Glinka pieces. Alexandra Elina had another chance to charm too.

Orchestra sponsors Gorodissky & Partners, and Festival Sponsors Optima-Invest are to be congratulated on a progressive policy of supporting new work and young performers that not only bucks the trend of “pops with imported stars”, but delivered artistic rewards in spades. The theme of the 2005 Festival is French Music – since French repertoire appears even less regularly than Italian in Russia, we await it eagerly.

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