Photo by Ben Wright

This week the Russian sales have been providing a visual sensory overload. The Russian-themed concert at Cadogan Hall was a welcome break for weary eyes and a delight for the ears, allowing those not fortunate enough to suffer from synaesthesia like Kandinsky the chance to nonetheless indulge both senses in one day. The Russian Virtuosi of Europe Chamber Orchestra was the brainchild of violinist Yuri Zhislin who wanted to bring together the best string players that Russia has to offer. After forming in 2004, the Russian Virtuosi debuted very successfully at Wigmore Hall and since then they have been busy touring Europe and South America. Their conductor for the evening was Rachel Young, a native of New Zealand and a former cellist. Even today it is rare to see the conductor’s baton in a female hand, a great pity if this performance was anything to go by. Young’s movements were fluid and almost balletic and she lead with confidence and panache. The programme was a triptych of Russian works that spanned a whole century between them. The most recent piece, Schnittke’s 1977 ‘Moz-art à la Haydn’ was a fitting opener. It had a delightful performative aspect to it, employing light and movement as well as sound. The piece started atmospherically in darkness and as the lights went up, the musicians engaged in a playful games, alternatively standing and sitting, making crying sounds to a plaintive melody and finally leaving the stage one by one. This gesture re-enacts an apocryphal story about Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, where the players were similarly instructed to depart at the end, in protest against their patron Prince Esterhazy. One wonders whether Schnittke reused this gesture likewise in protest, against the regime that stifled him. Despite the humorous tone of the work, the ending has a bitter-sweet elegiac quality. Shostakovich, Schnittke’s neighbour in Novodeviche Cemetery, was present with the second piece of the evening, his 1933 ‘Piano Concerto No.1, Op.35’. Shostakovich wrote this piece as a performance showcase for himself and played it frequently, so Lithuanian pianist Vestard Shimkus had big shoes to fill. He acquitted himself honourably and very expressively, this latter quality being one that Shostakovich was often accused of lacking. The mood of the piece changes quite dramatically, from gloomy  and tortured to humorously sarcastic, with the trumpet interjecting some humorous notes. The finale of the evening belonged to Tchaikovsky’s 1880 ‘Serenade for Strings, Op.48’. Like Schnittke, Tchaikovsky was also greatly influenced by Mozart and this piece was a tribute to him. A romantic, fairy-tale concoction, especially during the celebrated Valse, the Serenade is a sensory delight. Tchaikovsky himself was very pleased with it and remarked that it had been written from the heart. Here, it was also played from the heart, and ended in a veritable storm of applause. Happily, Young and the Russian Virtuosi played the Valse as an encore, ending this enchanting evening on a suitably dreamy note.