Moscow State Symphony Orchestra

Perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Saturday 14th May, 2016, 7:30pm

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra

Pavel Kogan – conductor

John Lill – piano

Stephen Johnson Behemoth Dances 7’
Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini 22’
Shostakovich Symphony No 5 44’

MSSO encores:

Rachmaninov – Vocalise

Vincent Youmans (orch. Shostakovich) – Tea for Two – Tahiti Trot

Mariano Mores – El Firulete

Rachmaninov’sPaganini Rhapsody is more than just that rapturous 18th variation; and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is more than just one of the great symphonic blockbusters. And Pavel Kogan, John Lill and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra will show you why. Nothing compares to Russian music played by Russian performers, and for Kogan and his orchestra, it’s in the blood.

6.15pm Pre-concert conversation with Stephen Johnson and Jonathan James.
This conversation will be signed by a British Sign Language interpreter


Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

“Stephen Johnson is a much respected presenter and writer about music. As we discovered in Saturday’s concert from the remarkable Moscow State Symphony Orchestra he is also an accomplished composer.

Possibly the Russians took an interest in his Behemoth Dances because of Johnson’s passionate interest in the culture of their country. The scenario of this vibrant piece is based on a satirical Russian novel, but we don’t actually need to know that, as this well-imagined score speaks for itself.

Its gripping, urgent opening has something of William Walton’s brio about it, with bold, firmly-etched rhythms riding under confident orchestral sonorities. Darker interludes intervene, and there is particularly atmospheric use of the vibraphone.

Behemoth Dances’ bristling energy was generously conveyed by the MSSO under Pavel Kogan’s empowering baton, with the Hereford-based composer present to acknowledge the immense, well-deserved applause.”     …


Review by Richard Ely, BachTrack:

Click here for full review

…     “A Russian orchestra will have a particular emotional investment to make in this symphony. Kogan’s forceful intent was demonstrated from the beginning, with strings plunging into the first movement’s exposition with the force of someone being thrown bodily into a vat of cold water. The developmental section was judged perfectly, so that when the martial theme emerged, propelled by the side-drum, it had exactly the jolting effect the composer intended; the movement’s conclusion provided another magical moment, where time became stationary, as concertmaster Alexandra Zhavoronkova’s violin and Elena Kazna’s celesta trailed off into silence.

The same thrust and concern for dynamics was evident in the scherzo, which had never sounded more like a death waltz, for all its sprightliness. But even in a work as veiled as this, there has to be a heart-on-the-sleeve moment and the Largo is the closest Shostakovich comes to unburdening his soul. Kogan and his orchestra played it for all its worth, finding intense feeling in the movement’s expressivo climax that held the audience so rapt that the beginning of the Allegro final movement had the effect of a slap across the face. The note of sour triumphalism on which the symphony ends was precisely caught in a performance of astonishing alacrity: the whole piece clocked in at just forty minutes!

The reception fairly took the roof off and we were treated to a generous three encores: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise was sensuously melancholic, Shostakovich’s Tea for Two gave us some necessary light relief (you need to see this piece performed to understand just how funny it is!) and the tango El Firulate by the recently deceased Argentinian composer Mariano Mores. A triumphant evening. “


Review by Richard Bratby, TheArtsDesk:

Click here for full review

Behemoth Dances. Who dances? You know, Behemoth, the huge demonic black cat who cakewalks through Stalin’s Moscow in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita spreading mayhem and magic; the spirit – as quoted by Bulgakov, and taken by Stephen Johnson as a sort of motto for his new orchestral work – “that always wills evil, but always does good”. A sardonic fanfare announces his appearance, before the orchestra whizzes away on a bustling, bristling spree. Woodwinds squeal and skirl, the surface glitters, and a piano throws in a few deadpan comments.

But this isn’t just a deliciously orchestrated successor to one of Walton’s comedy overtures. There’s something going on beneath the surface here: solemn chants, dark undercurrents, and a spreading, quietly insistent sense that we’re actually hearing something profoundly sad. And with Pavel Kogan conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra – and if you didn’t know the composer lives in Herefordshire – you could be convinced that Behemoth Dances is showing you something remarkably like the Russian soul.

Stephen Johnson

And yes, this is the same Stephen Johnson (pictured) we know from Radio Three’s sorely missed Discovering Music – the authority on Bruckner, Shostakovich and Sibelius, the award-winning documentary-maker, and the writer of music criticism so lucid, so readable and so generous that it makes the rest of us feel like giving up. I can’t deny that part of the pleasure of this almost-premiere (it was first heard in Moscow last month) was seeing a fellow gamekeeper make such a terrific job of turning poacher. Johnson has been reticent about his composing, though he trained under Alexander Goehr. Hopefully no longer: Behemoth Dances shows that he has a voice, he has technique, and he can connect with an audience. The Birmingham audience cheered.”     …




Leningrad Symphony 70th Anniversary

The St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra:

Leningrad Symphony 70th Anniversary

Part of Rebellion and Resistance… more events…

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2012/13… more events…

Tuesday 2nd October 2012

Symphony Hall

The St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra
Brass players of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Dmitriev conductor
Peter Donohoe piano

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor 39’
Shostakovich Symphony No 7, Leningrad 69’

6.15pm Pre-concert talk by Stephen Johnson

Peter Donohoe’s encore – Rachmaninov – Opus 23 Prelude

St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra encores –  

Rachmaninov – Vocalise;  Excerpts from Ballet Ramonde by Glasunov

Distinguished musicians from St Petersburg (Leningrad) are joined by members of the CBSO to mark 70 years since the heroic Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in August 1942. That performance was relayed over public loudspeakers to the starving inhabitants of a city besieged by Nazi forces, and was an event of huge symbolic importance in Russian history.

Oliver Condy, Editor of BBC Music Magazine, explains why he has recommended tonight’s concert:

“Here’s a wonderful opportunity to experience Shostakovich’s most poignant symphony commemorating the victims of the Second World War, one that quickly became an internationally popular symbol of resistance to totalitarianism.”



Review by Diane Parkes, BehindTheArras:

Click here for full review

…     “With its notes of better times, its military-sounding drums and its crashing cymbals, the music echoes the experience of Leningrad’s devastating hardships. But its melodious woodwinds and gentle strings also take a listener beyond the immediate horrors faced by those within the city.

And then finally, a crescendo of brass and percussion recreates a mind-set of a people so resolute their refusal to surrender has gone down as one of history’s great battles.

Seventy years on, the work has lost none of its power. It may be performed well out of its original context today but it nevertheless reminds us of the indomitable human spirit.”     …

Tuned In: Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony

Thursday 10 November 2011 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121-780 3333

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons conductor
Stephen Johnson presenter

Shostakovich: Introduction to Shostakovich’s Seventh with live orchestral examples 35′
Shostakovich: Symphony No 7 (Leningrad) 71′ Listen on Spotify

Dmitri Shostakovich sat down and wrote his Seventh Symphony with Nazi forces surrounding Leningrad. In this concert-with-a-difference, presenter Stephen Johnson explains the story behind this modern classic, and shows how Shostakovich uses his huge orchestra – with live illustrations from Andris Nelsons and the 100-piece CBSO! Then there’s a chance to hear the whole symphony. Whether you know and love the Leningrad – or you’re new to Shostakovich – this concert will help you hear it with new ears.

To listen to some of the music in this concert, and explore the rest of the season, using our Spotify playlists, click here.

£20 all areas, including a free programme. Standard CBSO discounts apply.

Review for Saturday 12th’s concert which included Shostakovich 7, by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

…     “Nelsons followed the concerto with Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. He took immense care over its details, drove the notorious “invasion” of the first movement to a frightening climax, while keeping plenty in reserve for the bombastic blaze with which the work ends. The precision and tonal weight of the orchestral playing were outstanding; its dynamic range remarkable.”     …


Review for Saturday 12th’s concert which included Shostakovich 7, by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:  

…     “The famous jackbooting advance of totalitarianism (whether Hitler’s or Stalin’s we shall probably never know) is depicted with the cumulative unstoppability of Ravel’s Bolero – and what a tremendous underpinning the snare-drummer provided in Saturday’s CBSO account under an Andris Nelsons who seems to be permanently on fire.”      …     Rating * * * * *

Tuned In: Mahler Symphony No 9

Thursday 3 February 2011 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121-780 3333

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons  conductor
Stephen Johnson  presenter

Mahler: Introduction to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, with live orchestral examples 30”
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 87′ Listen
requires Real Player

Few symphonies tell a story as rich as that of Mahler’s Ninth. So join
presenter Stephen Johnson, conductor Andris Nelsons, and the full
CBSO, for the latest in the CBSO’s acclaimed Tuned In series of
concerts-with-a-difference. In the first half, Stephen (with a bit of help
from Andris Nelsons and the orchestra) uncovers the many layers of
Mahler’s last symphony – the hidden codes, the tricks of Mahler’s trade,
and the personal stories behind the notes. Then, after the interval,
there’s a full performance of the Symphony. Whether you’re a Mahler
first-timer, or you’ve known the Ninth for years, every performance of
this piece reveals something new. Tonight, we’ll help you find your own
way into the ultimate Romantic symphony.

Special prices apply: £20 all areas.

Review by John Quinn, MusicWeb:

… “Nelsons and his superb orchestra brought out all the passion in the first movement. There was a great deal of ardour and commitment in the music making and the powerfully projected climaxes were distinguished by dramatic, biting playing. At times the music sounded hedonistic and truly abandoned, and surely that’s right. However, I must immediately record that the quieter passages – and there are many of them – in which Mahler’s orchestral textures are often very spare, were rendered with finesse. The last few pages were superbly controlled and Nelsons ensured that the spell remained unbroken for a good length of time after the music had ceased.” …

Review for Wednesday night’s performance, by Stephen Walsh, ArtsDesk:

Review for Wednesday night’s performance, by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph:

…”Abetted by the super-sharp acoustic of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, the orchestra made a thrillingly vivid sound – which was wonderful in the impassioned episode in the first movement.” …

Review for Wednesday night’s performance, by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

Review for Wednesday night’s performance, by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

…”And no-one could possibly imagine the subsequent performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was Nelsons’ first-ever. His grip over its huge paragraphs and almost hallucinatory shifts in expression revealed a total immersion in this valedictory masterpiece as he guided us so patiently to its fading conclusion…

It goes without saying that his CBSO players responded with sumptuous depth of tone and well-characterised incidentals.” …

Review for Wednesday night’s performance, by Fiona Maddocks, The Observer:

…”Nelsons squeezed incisive, analytical zest out of each fresh idea with near frenzied intensity. No wonder he needed water as the orchestra retuned halfway through. If this, with its tendency towards heady extremes, is a young man’s high-octane Mahler – and it is, thrillingly – think how it will ripen. The CBSO strings, especially the second violins who launch the raucous ländler and carry the whispered final notes, deserve danger money.” …

Tuned In: Shostakovich Symphony No 4

Thursday 29 April 2010 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121-780 3333

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons  conductor
Stephen Johnson  presenter

Shostakovich: Introduction to Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, with live orchestral examples 45′
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 60′

Shostakovich’s massive Fourth Symphony is a devastating portrait of the most turbulent years in 20th-century history. In this concert with a difference, broadcaster Stephen Johnson explains the many stories behind this extraordinary work, and shows how Shostakovich uses his huge orchestra to such unforgettable effect – with live illustrations from Andris Nelsons and the 110-piece CBSO! Then there’s a chance to hear the whole symphony. Whether you know and love the Fourth – or you’re new to Shostakovich – this concert will help you hear it with new ears.

Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

…”It was gripping for every second from the opening’s thunderous mechanical rhythms to its magical close, with the celeste crooning the musical monster into a growling sleep. Nelsons, aided by terrific playing from every department, ensured that the middle movement’s ghostly waltz, Tchaikovsky’s shade making an appearance, was eerily effective.” …

Review by Neil Fisher, Times:

…”What impressed was how fervently he stamped his authority on this scrambled score, drawing sharp and sinuous playing in a spine-tingling combination of moment-by-moment intensity and a canny sense for where the symphony’s guiding pulse points lie. The sprawling third movement in particular was guided by an energising momentum that almost fooled you into thinking that its twisted threads might resolve into something heroic and affirmative. In the end, the ticking shrug that signals a fade-out came as the most gruesome and chilling of wake-up calls.” …

Review by Geoff Read, MusicWeb International:

…”Johnson conveyed his enthusiasm for the work throughout. After the orchestra had played the opening bars of the first movement, he pronounced ‘What a way to begin a symphony!’ Hear! Hear! ” ….

…”Andris Nelsons’ punishing schedule resulted in his late arrival, but hotfoot from the airport he was there to take up the baton for the performance proper. Showing little sign of fatigue, he exuded his customary energy upon his one hundred and ten strong orchestra. The opening chords of the first movement Allegretto were crisp and exhilarating. The twists and turns of the two sonata-form elements and their development can sometimes result in a disjointed whole, but here they were seamlessly fused together by Nelsons and a CBSO on top form. ” …

Review by Christopher Thomas, MusicWeb International, (second opinion):

…”With Nelsons on the podium the spell that the young Latvian has over the orchestra was immediately striking, the rapt attention of the players palpable throughout as the almost maniacal cackling of the brass and the shrieking of the woodwind carried an intensity that was only topped by the fugue in the strings, played at a jaw dropping tempo that conveyed a terrifying sense of desperation, a telling sign of the composer’s state of mind at the time of the work’s composition.”

…”Utterly desolate, utterly heart rending and yet as Stephen Johnson so aptly pointed out also utterly magnificent, the closing bars of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony are as powerful a statement as anything in the Russian symphonic literature. Could this be the last word in musical ambiguity and paradox? On the evidence of this performance at least, there are few who would be likely to argue. “…