Wednesday, 2 March 2011

FeMusa String Ensemble play Amirov and Zeynalli, 28 February 2011

The FeMusa String Ensemble gave an hour-long concert at Westminster Central Hall under the auspices of The European Azerbaijan Society to mark the nineteenth anniversary of the Khojaly massacre in Azerbaijan. Under the direction of their founder/leader Nazrin Rashidova, they played two works by Azerbaijani composers: the Nizami Symphony by Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) and Mugham Sayagi by Asaf Zeynalli (1909-1932).

Zeynalli's short piece encapsulated the essence of mugham, the complex Azeri musical form that weds classical poetry and improvisation through the utilisation of a modal system; a certain intensity of expression is often associated with the rising musical pitch of the music as well. Originally scored for violin and piano, the robust arrangement for string orchestra – largely playing in unison, all sections producing balanced and adequately rich tone – had a stately feeling at the adopted largo tempo. An appropriately sombre touch, in-keeping with the occasion, was lent by top and tailing the score with brief but atmospheric use of tubular bells. Across the ensuing texture Nazrin Rashidova spun a solo violin line that was contemplative, its melancholic poetic voice firmly to the fore. 

No less a composer than Shostakovich commented that “Amirov is a composer with a rich, melodic ability. The melody is the spirit of his creativity.” If the symphony, which dates from 1947 and celebrates the twelfth century poet Nizami Ganjavi, is anything to go by then his personal voice thrives on deliberate juxtapositions of material, both within and across its movements, though thankfully for a work of this period the impact of any realist aesthetic on his musical thinking is limited. The first movement opened with a unison burst in the upper register across the orchestra, cellos becoming inward-looking, violas more characterful in their expression, emphasising the searching thoughtfulness at work behind the notes. Only when playing at forte in high register did the music slightly lack finesse in execution. The second movement was outwardly more joyful in character, lengthy lines woven and wilfully contrasted with adroitly judged changes in tempo. The third movement appeared in the guise of a nocturne, its fulsome unison steadily built, against which Rashidova’s solo violin broke free in a passionate downward sweep before drawing the ensemble towards a neat pianissimo. The closing movement, Allegro con brio, tightly constructed from thematic material drawn from the previous movements, was played with obvious panache and assurity, giving the work as a whole much needed cohesion.

Three extracts from other works filled out the programme: the Larghetto from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was played at an appropriately judged tempo with well upholstered tone. The Sentimental Sarabande from Britten’s Simple Symphony highlighted the brilliant assurance of his youthful writing through the clearly sustained instrumental parts, benefitting particularly from tender cello line held against the other pizzicato strings. Grieg’s The First Meeting effectively sustained its over-riding character of vocalise in the upper strings against a slow and sombre backdrop.

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