Saturday, January 24, 2009

Made for oboe

Last night's concert at the Kongresu Rumu was the last in a series of a Christmas festival, organised by music academies in Vilnius, St Petersburg and Moscow, the Russian Embassy and funded by a variety of sponsors, including Russian and Lithuanian radio stations. I know this because Viktoras Gerulaitis, the announcer, told us this in Lithuanian and in Russian - lots of diplomats, including from Russia, presumably, were there. My heart sinks when Gerulaitis steps on the stage, seeing as he is rather garrulous, but this time he stuck strictly to the script - which in itself was rather long.

A half-empty concert hall then heard the Moscow-based chamber ensemble 'Hermitage' under Aleksey Utkin perform pieces by JC Bach, Britten, Bruch, Shostakovich and Piazzola. All pieces had been arranged by Utkin to be for oboe plus support - this arranging to suit soloists seems to be a characteristic of East European groups; Kremer does it in his Kremerata Baltica (though not necessarily himself) as does Bashmet with his group.  I suppose arranging pieces gets round copyright law, too, at least for the arrangers.   The group was young, and consisted of 7 women, 2 men, Utkin and an unnamed female flautist. (Upper string players out east tend to be female.)  Utkin and the flautist (perhaps his wife??) both played golden instruments.

I was amazed by JC Bach's sinfonia concertante for oboe, violin and flute. This was an exciting performance, with nice modern bow strokes (not the usual East European indulgence of beautiful sounds), beautifully presented. The flute had a wonderful warm sound - don't think it has anything to do with it being golden.

The Britten pieces were interesting. I did not know any of them - there was a fantasy for oboe and strings, and two other pieces. They sounded very percussive, and very advanced for Britten, who I know more for his Peter Grimes, his Lachrymae for viola and the Simple Symphony.  The last of these, 'Vapsva' in Lithuanian, sounded more like the Britten I knew.

Bruch's 'Kol Nidrei' seems to be taken up by anyone who can play an instrument these days. Originally written for cello and small orchestra, it's in the standard repertoire for viola, and there is a violin version, too - plus an oboe version, it would appear. A piano took on the role of a harp. The group shot into this piece - I think it's a mournful piece, but the beginning was rather on the fast side. I'm not really sure about the oboe (and probably also the violin) playing this; the pitch is just too high and the sound too penetrating. Maybe a clarinet would be better, if it has to be played on a wind instrument. The ending of it, when they slowed down and Utkin created a much more melancholic sound, was beautiful, though. Some twat in the audience applauded as the last note was dying...  (The audience was not the usual concert-going crowd in any case - they applauded everywhere.)

The second half was more entertainment-like; some Shostakovich dances from a ballet score (but not Tea for Two) which I had not heard before. And finally some Piazzola pieces, which came across a bit boring. First they were all the pieces everyone knows, and secondly four of the five were rather mournful pieces (Ave Maria, Muerto del Angelo, Oblivion, and Adios Nonino) - the Libertango at the end was almost not like the one I recognized....

The encore was a piece by 'Josef Gaydn', as the Russians tend to say. A beautiful Rondo for oboe and strings.

The band played very beautifully indeed, and if this is the modern Russian approach to music, it's well worth exporting. Their versions of the classical pieces would support them well in Western Europe and the US. It was only that the programming was a bit mixed, but maybe that was needed for this kind of event and musically fairly illiterate audience. The lead cellist seemed to be a bit of a mainstay of the band - she was great. Utkin's oboe playing is superb; strangely he did not seem to have to do all that housekeeping that you see other oboists do, fiddling with bits of paper, or the mouthpiece - maybe he just has a better quality of oboe?