by Colin Anderson
As part of the Zurich International Series, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and long-standing music director Pavel Kogan arrived at Cadogan Hall and launched straight into a UK premiere, Behemoth Dances by Stephen Johnson (born 1955), best-known as a writer and broadcaster on music, a familiar voice on BBC Radio 3. If not Johnson’s primary occupation, his interest in composing goes back to his teenage years and has had the tutelage of Alexander Goehr and Robert Simpson. Behemoth Dances is “named after Bulgakov’s magnificent cat-demon Behemoth [from the novel, The Master and Margerita], who wreaks such havoc in Stalin’s Russia, yet whose pranks prove to be strangely redemptive for a few privileged souls.” Given its premiere in Moscow a few weeks ago, and with a further three performances in the UK during this tour, Behemoth Dances is a real find and opened this concert of two halves, which – using football analogies – was Leicester City in the first one, Sunderland in the second (just got away with it!).
a distinct cut of its own… very engaging and accomplished, and brilliantly scored for a large orchestra including soprano saxophone and piano
The 10-minute Behemoth Dances opens with a brass summons and gawky rhythms; it is energetic and wild. There are dark reflections and sinewy melodies. The composer’s programme note suggests a lighter work (including reference to Scott Bradley’s music for Tom and Jerry) than the one I heard, which had me writing down “danger” and “terror”. I also noted it as an English piece, citing composers such as Fricker, Searle, McCabe and Richard Rodney Bennett. But these are vague references, for Behemoth Dances has a distinct cut of its own, is very engaging and accomplished, and brilliantly scored for a large orchestra including soprano saxophone and piano, and with imaginative use of percussion. I wondered if there is a cheeky if deadpan quotation (in the brass) from something well-known towards the end, possibly by Prokofiev. Whether yes or no, Behemoth Dances is a really good piece, and I’d love to hear it again, and this UK premiere was of flair and precision.