I set off for the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ during the rush hour, while the Dutch end of Storm Brian was blowing; on a kindly-lent Amsterdam-type bike with no handlebar brakes, which can only be slowed by pedalling backwards. Everyone there always assures me that these are the very best bikes for the city’s terrain, and by the way, congratulations to those of my fellow cyclists who on this evening were cycling with open umbrellas in one hand to keep off the deluge. But I arrived in a windblown, nervous state at Amsterdam’s glamorous riverside concert hall.
To be greeted by the most suave, civilised possible opening item from the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble, Scriabin’s 8th Piano Sonata in a chamber arrangement by Nikolai Korndorf; sounding very like beautiful early Schoenberg. This was the beginning of an all-Russian programme, dominated (to my ears anyway) by those great ladies, Gubaidulina and Ustvolskaya. The latter’s Octet (for four violins, two oboes, timps and piano) was so forceful that, like Brian outside, it seemed to be blowing everything else in the concert away, including three new works by young Russian composers from the under-40 generation.
I realised later that the particular sense of familiarity I’d felt during the Octet came from memories of a Dutch (VPRO) film about Ustvolskaya made in this very Muziekgebouw just before its official opening, which was twelve years ago. (Ustvolskaya died in the following year, 2006). The composer had broken a lifetime ban on travel to visit rehearsals for her Second Symphony with Reinbert de Leeuw (also conducting and playing piano on this present occasion). It’s a wonderful half-hour film which I was delighted to find again, perfectly legally I think, on YouTube. Greatly recommended.