I, Culture Orchestra. Edinburgh International Festival. Usher Hall. Sunday 17 August.


Andrzej Panufnik’s Sinfonia elegiaca, was the prelude to Dmitry Shostakovitch’s Symphony No 7.  ‘Leningrad’.  Although the Edinburgh Festival has a specific focus on the commemorations marking World War One, this evening was a reaction by a Polish and Russian composer to the horrors of Nazi invasion.

The I, Culture Orchestra was established by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw in 2011 and is an ensemble of young musicians from Poland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.  This extraordinary orchestra has played internationally and is led by the brilliant Kirill Karabits who manages to make the large body of musicians perform as if they are one.

Panufnik’s 1957 Sinfonia elegiaca, is a startlingly simple, and also a deeply complex, creation which he wrote ‘as an antiwar protest’.  In three parts, it begins with a dark, slow, elegiac sound ending with the scream of violins before moving into a fast and furious section completing with the crash of resonating cymbals.  The final part is a contemplation ending in soft drumming.  It is the first time I have heard Panufnik’s mesmerising work and this brought me a new understanding of how trauma and loss can provoke musical creativity.

Shostakovitch’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony was composed in 1941 during the Nazi siege of the city.  Again the use of hardly perceptible drums is used but this symphony has the epic quality of a film score and a passion that also focuses on loss during the Nazi Siege but here the scale is huge.  Critics have also suggested that the composition is a protest against the tyranny of Stalin’s Soviet regime.  Shostakovitch’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony is dramatic, thrilling and has a narrative which makes the memory of Russia’s twenty million World War Two dead return like avenging angels.  That the symphony ends in the major key, offers a form of ecstatic release but, even at the moment of victory, the work still has elements of the minor key to remind us of those who died defending the city.

Undoubtedly Shostakovitch’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony is one of the most important compositions of the twentieth century but this performance was not just a question of musicians playing a masterpiece, this orchestra were performing with inside historical knowledge as well as amazing skill.  As soon as it was over I wanted it to all start again.  The normally reserved Scottish audiences were yelling Bravo! I clapped so hard, and for so long, that my arms hurt.

Julia Pascal © 2014.