Concert Review

Elena Firsova 50th birthday concert. Royal Academy of Music, 5 March 2000.

This was an extraordinary musical party. The Duke's Hall was packed for a concert introduced by Barry Gavin, who had made memorable TV films during 1990 about composers in Soviet Russia. The images of a large number of them eating, drinking and talking, crammed in the tiny kitchen of Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov's small Moscow flat, are unforgettable, and a significant contribution to recent history.

They emigrated to England with two small children, Alissa & Philip, and both composers were featured in London's Almeida Festival, where I first heard their music. Barry Gavin described Firsova as laconic and pertinent in her talk, no 'miniaturist' given her intensity of expression, and 'happily congruent' with Mandelstam. He celebrated how the couple had battled through, to become welcomed as fellow citizens and friends of their new country.

Both are now well-established composers in this country. Half (well, not quite) of London's leading musicians, and some impressive younger ones, took part in a three-hour retrospective of Elena's compositions. Alissa took part, with fellow-pupils from the Purcell School, in Frozen Time, a Schubert Ensemble commission for their Chamber Music 2000 project [see review] to create contemporary music for teenagers - its 'quasi-romantic material treated in a contemporary manner' wholly successful, and performed with complete assurance. Philip Firsov provided my illustration and sold his mother's scores during the intervals.

Michael Vaiman (violin) with his brilliant pianist son, Daniel, gave the first performance of Vernal Equinox Op. 94, commissioned for this birthday concert. Sharing her birthday (March 21) with those of Mussorgsky and Bach, Elena Firsova incorporated the notes of her own name and her husband's, together with the famous BACH motto.

Two great Russian cellists, now resident in London, contributed - Alexander Ivashkin and Karine Georgian. Richard Shaw mounted the concert with 'an endless list' of helpers, and played piano and celeste. He accompanied Ivashkin in The Night Demons (1993) - more dramatic than most of Firsova's music - and Owen Murray (accordion) partnered Karine Georgian in Crucifixion (also 1993), evoking 'the feelings of a human being entering a hard period in life'. (Both those pieces have alternative accompaniments for organ.) Ian Pace played the Hymn to Spring (1993) for solo piano, premiered by Yvar Mikhashoff in the 1993 Almeida Festival, a deliberately lighter piece after Crucifixion, based on bird song and a sequence of major triads.

Tim Mirfin (bass), with flute and harp, impressed in two striking settings of poems by Oleg Prokofiev (whom I knew in Blackheath), the recently deceased sculptor son of the great composer, and friend of the Smirnov/Firsova family. Patricia Rozario, in superlative voice, sang settings of Akhmatova and Mandelstam, the latter an enduring influence upon Elena Firsova. The concert ended with Before the Thunderstorm, a substantial cantata to Mandelstam's Moscow Poems, in which she was accompanied by an ensemble of nine musicians conducted by Lionel Friend.

Firsova's music has a clear, individual voice. Usually it is lyrical and beautiful, with a liking for decorative melismas, but with clear, spare textures, so that it manages to avoid becoming cloying. One or two of her works would go well as quieter, focused and centred contrasts to the noisiness and busyness of much contemporary music. She respects the essential qualities of voice and instruments so that they sound well, and her music must be grateful to perform. It was a pleasure to share this birthday celebration and I hope that a CD will follow, featuring especially Patricia Rosario in Elena Firsova's settings of Mandelstam.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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