Their National Orchestra does Ukraine Proud

National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at Symphony Hall ★★★★

An enthusiastic audience gave a standing ovation to the Ukrainian orchestra on the Birmingham leg of their European tour. The opening piece combined patriotism and power: the tone poem ‘Grazhyna’ by Ukrainian composer Boris Lyatosynsky. Although written in 1955 it’s a romantic throwback to the style of Smetana’s ‘Ma Vlast’ but instead of his fierce and murderous warrior maiden Šárka, Lyatosynsky celebrates the noble Lithuanian princess Grazhyna who leads the troops into battle in defence of her country. The orchestra’s music director Volodymyr Sirenko conducted the huge orchestral forces – including snare and bass drums and harp – sans baton but with expressive and cajoling hands. It began with Grazhyna’s delicate plangent theme on cor anglais with disturbing wisps of sound from the wind, violas and second violins, depicting ominous forebodings of the invasion to come. Sirenko’s decision to divide the violins antiphonally paid dividends here, with the first fiddles and basses on the left only unleashed when the battle commenced. The enemy are the Teutonic knights – the same foes as in Prokofiev’s ‘Alexander Nevsky’ – who are despatched but not before mortally wounding Grazhyna whose theme ends the work in tragic but uplifting fashion.

The performance of Beethoven’Piano Concerto No 4 was a mixed bag. The Viennese audience at its 1808 premiere, the composer as soloist, were surely bewildered at its opening – simple unaccompanied G major chords with the orchestra watching on. Familiarity has eliminated the shock but it’s up to the soloist to suggest, through phrasing, tone and volume, something of its original mystery which Antonii Baryshevskyi failed to do. Once underway he gave a clear, articulate and agile performance and contributed a novel, if wildly anachronistic, first movement cadenza. The second movement’s Orpheus-versus -the-Furies drama was diminished by the orchestra’s tame contribution under Sirenko – these Furies had their nails clipped and teeth blunted.

There was plenty to enjoy in a tough sinewy take on Sibelius’s Symphony No 1 which had drive, dynamism and plenty of detail. In this early work the shadow of Tchaikovsky often hoves into view but so do examples of the mature Sibelius’s quirky and individual orchestration. In the first movement Sirenko and his players revealed that strange harmonic passage where one part of the theme spirals downwards like autumn leaves in a breeze and in the second movement instead of Tchaikovsky-style orchestral sectioning Sibelius has a strange musing colloquy for the woodwind. The anti-barnstorming finale, that final quiet pizzicato, still never ceases to amaze.

Norman Stinchcombe

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