by David Truslove

It was the Anvil’s turn on Sunday night to host the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra as part of their UK tour under their Musical Director Pavel Kogan. Kick-starting the evening was a new work by BBC Radio 3 broadcaster and musicologist Stephen Johnson – Behemoth Dances – which received its UK première last week at the Cadogan Hall.

Johnson is no newcomer to composing, but this colourful score – his first large orchestral essay – has considerable appeal. The work’s eclectic style draws on a range of British and Russian influences, (with a brief quotation from Peter and the Wolf) and is scored for a generous orchestra (including piano, saxophone and varied percussion) which is used with assurance. The title Behemoth Dances derives from Bulgakov’s cat-demon Behemoth (from the riotous novel, The Master and Margarita) who “wreaks such havoc in Stalin’s Russian, yet whose pranks prove to be strangely redemptive for a few privileged souls”.

Johnson’s response to this tale is a 10-minute work marked by restlessness, playful exuberance and, not far from the surface, an element of melancholy, possibly resulting from his borrowing of the plainchant Libera me, Domine. Kogan and the Moscow State Symphony did Johnson proud, bringing to life an exciting new score and playing with enthusiasm.