Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Orion Symphony Orchestra / Purser @ Cadogan Hall, London

30 March 2009

The Orion Symphony Orchestra is the coming together of some of the best talent of the London music colleges under the baton of Toby Purser.

As well as giving their time and talent for the benefit of homeless charities, the orchestra has an avowed aim of rediscovering lost masterpieces of the British repertoire.

With plenty of half-forgotten works mouldering in our own backyard, it’s a worthy intention but, in their latest concert at Cadogan Hall, it was in the Russian half of the concert that we got to hear the greater rarities.

Those great British qualities of pastoralism and love of freedom were explored in a programme entitled “Britten to Russia” (the pun is intentional with Britten joined in the first half by Tippett and Vaughan Williams). Britten was represented by his last purely orchestral work, the arrangements of English Folk Tunes called “A time there was..”, after the Thomas Hardy poem he’d used in his earlier cycle Winter Words.

Tippett’s moving “Five Negro Spirituals” from A Child of Our Time followed, with fine singing from the four soloists Stephanie Edwards (soprano), Anais Heghoyan (mezzo), Ben Thapa (tenor) and David Milner-Pearce (bass) and haunting shadowing from the Sonitus Chamber Choir.

Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous 1938 Serenade to Music brought rapturous playing from the young musicians, with lovely solo work from leader Astghik Vardanyan. Sweet harmony indeed.

The true rarity of the evening was Veniamin Fleishman’s Rothschild’s Violin, or at least episodic excerpts of it (here in an arrangement “devised” by Toby Purser). The composer, a Russian who died at the age of 28 fighting in the Second World War, produced just this one composition, an opera based on a Chekov short story.

With klezmeresque sounds and wild stormy passages that owe a huge debt to Shostakovich (and stand comparison with his own From Jewish Folk Poetry), these bleeding chunks, played with enormous ebullience and abandon, gave an indication that this is a work well worth hunting down.

The evening ended in Russia still with Shostakovich’s oddball Ninth Symphony. Nestling between the bristling grimness of the Eighth and ultimate triumph of the Tenth, this constantly surprising work shows the composer at something approaching his most humorous.

At the end of his Sixth Symphony, Shostakovich had veered off into a wild circus-like galop and he here let a similar mood take wing. There’s a degree of plaintive brooding and even menace in the inner movements but it’s the mystifying, bouncing playfulness of the first and last that stay in the memory.

This intense and energetic performance by Purser and his forces was a welcome outing for this under-rated and seldom-performed work, ending a hugely enjoyable evening of contrasting moods.

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Orion Symphony Orchestra / Purser @ Cadogan Hall, London