An odd reflection to have at the start of a weekend dedicated to Benjamin Britten’s Russian influences at Snape Maltings, home to the world-renowned Aldeburgh Festival, but Benjamin Britten disliked a lot of Russian music (Rachmaninov, Borodin, Mussorgsky) and quite a few Russian composers personally, notably, Stravinsky, though he was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky and later of Shostakovich. What is sometimes overlooked as well is that he had something of a soft spot for Soviet Russia until surprisingly late in the day.
Over two beautifully sunny days on the edges of the Alde river in Suffolk, such ambivalences did not stop me enjoying the music of composers as varied as Prokofiev (Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova sung by a very full voiced Julia Sitkovetsky accompanied by Roger Vignoles) and Rachmaninov (Six Romances, again sung by Sitkovetsky, and his lush Third Symphony played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Jac van Steen). But in volume and sheer musical quality, the weekend – held over the 19th and 20th of October – was unsurprisingly dominated by works by Britten and Shostakovich. Indeed the whole programme of concerts revolved thematically around just three men and one woman: Britten’s relationship with the Russian cellist Slava Rostropovich, and to a lesser extent his wife the singer Galina Vishnevskaya, and with the musical titan of Soviet Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich.
Key to these relationships was a concert in London in 1960 – re-enacted at Snape last month – which a reluctant Britten was persuaded to attend because the celebrated Russian cellist was to play Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. Britten was entranced by Rostropovich’s incredibly skilful playing and made this clear to Shostakovich by constantly nudging him in his ribs (they were seated together in a concert hall box) to indicate the passages he most admired. A triangular friendship was born that evening that would survive until their deaths.
The triangle was not only about music but also about Soviet Russia, the crossing point of these extraordinary personalities and talents. It was entirely appropriate therefore that the first symphonic concert of the weekend, under the skilled direction of van Steen and the vibrant playing of the Welsh Orchestra, should have opened with a very short but historically resonant piece, Russian Funeral, written by Britten in 1936 and originally performed at a London Labour Union concert to mark the resistance to Fascism shown under the Spanish Republic. Britten was then firmly on the left politically, still sympathetic to the “Soviet experiment” notwithstanding Stalin’s show trials and far removed from his eventual evolution into a conservative establishment figure, Lord Britten, OM, etc.