Talking Heads: Damian Iorio

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

With the divisiveness surrounding these shores on account of Brexit, here is a tale of cross-European collaboration and unity. London-born and Italian based, conductor Damian Iorio has close links with Russia, France – and Milton Keynes. Arcana hooked up with him for a chat about conducting Russia’s flagship opera, bringing classical music to the UK commuter belt and promoting ‘home’ composers via the Naxos label.

We begin by talking about the flagship opera – Musorgsky’s epic, Boris Godunov, which Iorio has conducted at the Opéra Bastille in Paris this summer. He is wholly enthusiastic about the experience. “It has been very good, and what helps is that the production itself was great, and of course the music is marvellous. The cast have been phenomenal too. This is the first time I’ve conducted Boris, and we have done the first version – which isn’t done very often. It is not so well known, and there has been a lot of hard work to get it free and put it on.”

The opera had a complicated genesis, which he takes up. “The potted history is that the first version wasn’t passed by the imperial theatre committee, because they wanted more female roles. There were large-scale scenes, and it was never staged. Then for the second version he added the last act, and it was staged but not ultimately very much. Musorgsky was not a professional composer and his technical abilities were not so great, so Rimsky-Korsakov completed an orchestration, and this was taken as a new edition. We had to tweak it a bit, restoring some of the chamber-like qualities of the first version, especially because in Bastille we had a 15-year-old singing the address, so we had to be very careful balancing that out.”

Iorio has conducted opera in Paris before. “Ten years ago I was there to conduct Smetana’s The Bartered Bride”, he recalls. “From that I learned they have their own characteristics, and I remember the entrance to the pit and feeling the history behind me. There’s a little door near the pit that goes to a lake, a man-made reservoir. I thought I could disappear forever with all the ghosts of the past! It is a very large pit, and when I conduct there I feel a great sense of occasion. It is a real honour and privilege to have been there.”

Boris has more Parisian connections – and has also reaffirmed Iorio’s love for Russia. “It is a very important musical statement that has influenced both Debussy and Ravel”, he asserts. “The Pushkin libretto is based on fact, and so it is a very important historical statement. We worked with some great Russian singers for this production, and they treated me as Russian. I love the country deeply – my wife is Russian, I speak Russian, and it is an honour to be respected like that. I learnt from them of course, not least because the librettos were incredibly complicated. My wife and I translated it word by word to get behind the double meetings. The published version is complicated, and we had to get behind the text to understand the history of certain phrases and sayings.”

First impressions might imply opera in Paris and concerts in Milton Keynes inhabit very different worlds, but Iorio enjoys the contrast between the two. He has been Music Director of the Milton Keynes City Orchestra since 2014, and enjoys it greatly – with music the common ground linking this to his work in Paris. “Milton Keynes is a very different animal but we have had Russian music there too in our recent season, through a programme of operatic music. We have done Mozart and Haydn too, and we have hooked up with some fantastic musicians, including Stephen Hough and Chloe Hanslip.”

He thrives on his dual nationality, as well as a multicultural thread that runs through his family. “I am half English and half Italian, and all my family are musicians. I was born and brought up in the London musical life, but I’ve worked for periods in Italy and lived and studied in Russia. I have a great affinity with Russia and actually feel quite Russian. To add to that I played in a Danish orchestra for six years, and still speak Danish now. It’s very important to know languages I think, to relate to the people you work with and the environment you’re in.”

The conductor is keen to further the cause of a number of Italian composers from the turn of the century, in the process of being rescued from comparative obscurity. Respighi is already relatively well-known, and Iorio has explored the trilogy of Roman symphonic poems with several orchestras, most recently the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra in April. The cause of Pizzetti and his contemporaries, however, is lesser known – and Iorio has recorded a disc for Naxos of the composer’s Symphony in A major and Harp Concerto.

“There are a lot of Italian composers who are not so well known,” he explains. “The list includes Malipiero and Casella as well as Pizzetti. These were all important figures at the time, but they had a rather different relationship with Fascism, and relating with the opera became more important in Italy. What I have been trying to do recently is to discover and record the repertoire of these composers. When my father was growing up, Italy was a great place for the Avant-garde. Last for a few decades but very interesting looking back. The Pizzetti symphony was written for the 2600th anniversary of the accession of the first Emperor of Japan. Britten wrote the Sinfonia Da Requiem for the same festival but it was turned down – and yet he had written this incredible piece. Pizzetti was considered on the same level as Britten and the Soprano and Harp Concerto are beautiful pieces.

Iorio speaks passionately about his work in this area. “It is important that people have access to this music, because in the past it has been recorded either badly or not at all. There is a whole world to be discovered, and I believe it’s the right time to program it again. I have a family link, as my grandfather’s wife was principal at the conservatoire in Naples and Rome. She had links to all these composers, and that gives the recording a personal edge for me.

It is of course pleasing to Arcana’s ears to learn that Iorio does not restrict himself to classical music – and does in fact have a deep love of progressive rock. Flitting between the styles comes naturally. “I’m trying to educate my kids properly, and that includes listening to Planet Rock. When I was 13-14 and living in London, there was a guy called Tony that I got to know. I had a cheap guitar so we did twelve-bar blues in the play centre, and he would let me play along. I used to play along to the music of Queen and Metallica – amongst many others! – and I used to go to Hammersmith Odeon and see concerts.”

Iorio highlights the pianist Gabriele Baldocci, with whom he performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto no.2 with the Milton Keynes City Orchestra – as a classical artist who also loves rock music, and has written his own Queen tribute.

“It is not a coincidence that in a lot of classical musicians listen to rock”, he affirms. “They work hard, they’ve got technique and a lot of musicians can relate to that. A lot of pigeon holing goes on in music and it would be nice to move between these areas more freely.”

He has a lot to look forward to in the coming months of 2018. “We have a new season at Milton Keynes, where we will have some very good soloists, and I will be going back to orchestras in Holland and Spain. I have my National Youth String Orchestra here in London, and they will be playing at Kings Place on 12 August. We have some amazingly talented kids in Britain, and some choose to come to us instead of the National Youth Orchestra. Then from February onwards I will be with the Welsh National Opera and we will be doing Mozart‘s The Magic Flute. I also have Holst‘s The Planets with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Albert Hall. There is plenty to look forward to!”

Damian Iorio conducts the National Youth String Orchestra in a program of Mendelssohn, Strauss, Britten and Tchaikovsky over three dates in York, Ambleside and London – appearing at Kings Place on 12 August. For ticket information click here. For more information on Iorio’s forthcoming dates, you can visit his website

Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition, Songs and Dances of Death / Gergiev

Featured recording: Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bare Mountain, Songs and Dances of Death (Ferruccio Furlanetto (baritone), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky)


A new all-Musorgsky disc by Valery Gergiev and his Russian charges, returning to the composer whose operas Gergiev has recorded with great success.

What’s the music like?

On paper this release is a brilliant way to start a Musorgsky collection, because it contains his two best loved works. Pictures at an Exhibition, appearing in its celebrated orchestration by Ravel, is a wonderful set of character pieces that fully captures an artistic exhibition and the viewer’s response to it. Night on Bare Mountain is equally vivid in its portrayal of a witches’ sabbath, and the right performance can strike genuine fear into the heart. Finally the Songs and Dances of Death for baritone and orchestra (not as depressing as they sound through opportunities taken for gallows humour!) appear in the orchestral version made by Shostakovich.

Does it all work?

It should do – because this is surely a home banker for Valery Gergiev, conducting both the music of his homeland and a composer in whose music he specialises. Yet something is awry, for two of the three live performances feel routine at best.

Pictures lacks spark and feels very polite, taking its time to reveal plenty of things in the score but rarely getting out of second gear, as though the exhibition has only a few days left to run. There is no edge to Gnomus, which should ideally be unhinged, and no sense of culmination in The Great Gate of Kiev, the work’s crowning glory. The Old Castle, while suitably mournful and featuring a lovely saxophone solo, drags its feet, while Bydlo, the old cart whose machinery lumbers down the track, has a disarmingly smooth passage here.

There are a few exceptions. The characterisation of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle is brilliant, thanks to a sharp trumpet portraying the latter character, while the clucking of The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells is winsome. But overall this version lacks real excitement.

Sadly Night on Bare Mountain is little better, and sounds like a version going through the motions, with an incredibly limp final chord. There are moments where the electric charge is more pronounced, especially when the dance music comes in around 1’45”, but otherwise this is disappointing fayre with little sense of terror.

All this is redeemed by Ferruccio Furlanetto, the commanding singer chosen for Songs and Dances of Death. There is an incredibly strong resonance to his voice, effortlessly taking charge of the Lullaby, while hurling his all into the end of the Serenade and the fatal triumphalism of The Field Marshal. Gopak, the third song, starts with threadbare bass sounding appropriately ghoulish, the sentiments of the poem laid as bare as the orchestration. Gergiev is inspired here, completing a version that stands tall alongside any competition.

Is it recommended?

Overall, no – unless you are desperate for a recording of the Songs and Dances of Death. For Pictures, alternative versions include those conducted by Claudio Abbado and Carlo Maria Giulini, with Abbado again the choice for Night on Bare Mountain.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here

A Russian Song and Dance

A Russian Song and Dance – a varied program of Shostakovich, Musorgsky and Glazunov from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov


Yuri Vorobiev (bass voice), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (pictured) – City Halls, Glasgow, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 6 March

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available.

With no recordings of this music made by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to date, I have chosen suitable alternatives:


What’s the music?

Shostakovich – a selection from King Lear (1971) (18 minutes)

Musorgsky – Songs and Dances of Death (1875-1877) (18 minutes)

Glazunov – The Seasons (1900) (38 minutes)

What about the music?


A poster for the 1971 Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear

Russian composers took frequent inspiration from the works of Shakespeare, especially Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, responsible for arguably the two most famous interpretations of Romeo and Juliet. Shostakovich wrote a mass of film and ballet scores, but only encountered The Bard twice – once in Hamlet and twice in the darkly scored King Lear – for the stage in 1940 and then in 1971 for Grigori Kozintsev’s film.

Musorgsky wrote Songs and Dances of Death, his last and most popular song cycle* for voice, between 1875 and 1877, but he did not live to be old enough to orchestrate the four songs. The collection was orchestrated initially by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, who worked together in making a number of the composer’s scores fit for orchestral purpose. Shostakovich himself arranged a version in 1962, but here the conductor Ilan Volkov opts to use a ‘cleaner and simpler’ version by Edison Denisov from 1982.

As to the texts, they are each a nail in the coffin – but Lullaby, Serenade, Trepak and The Field Marshal do on occasion have slightly lighter moments, the rich timbre of the Russian bass is offset by gallows humour from the accompaniment. The texts are difficult – a mother’s last vigil over an infant in Lullaby, with death standing at the door, then the story of a terrible courtship in Serenade, an apparition in a forest for Trepak and finally, famously, The Field Marshal, who surveys his dead soldiers as though in victory.

Glazunov is often looked down on by people outside of the history of Russian music, regarded as an inferior composer to those around him such as Rachmaninov or his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet he had a big part to play in the country’s musical history and was hugely admired by Shostakovich and Prokofiev if not Stravinsky. As well as teaching and conducting he wrote nine symphonies, ballets, concertos and a number of orchestral pieces – The Seasons among them. As Ilan Volkov says in a brief interview before the performance here, Glazunov is in effect a bridge between Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky where ballet is concerned. As you will hear from this work, there is rarely anything less than a hummable tune!

Glazunov opts to begin with the Spirit of Winter, expressed through dance variations for Frost, Ice, Hail and Snow that have orchestral touches similar to those used by Tchaikovsky in The Nutcracker. The music gets warmer as Spring arrives, then positively bathes in the Summer sunshine, before the big tune of the whole evening is revealed at the onset of Autumn. Not for Glazunov the bleakness of the trees stripped bare – rather he prefers to celebrate the leaves whirling around his head!

Performance verdict

A really well thought out program from the typically enterprising Ilan Volkov, leading his BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra charges in a powerful concert. The Shostakovich is dark and rather foreboding, and although lacks the intensity of the composer’s symphonies it still carries some of his distinctive musical fingerprints, which the woodwind in particular find.

Yuri Vorobiev gives a thoroughly authentic performance of the Musorgsky, and even listening on the radio you can catch a glint in the eye at times. The reduced orchestration of Denisov helps with clarity when placing the words.

The Seasons is a warm-hearted performance, with charm aplenty from the orchestra. The woodwind sparkle, with excellent contributions from flute (winter) and oboe, while the strings have a really nice bounce to their rhythms.

The rustic Autumn Bacchanal is a winner!

What should I listen out for?


3:40 – a stern brass statement

9:03 – The creeping (and creepy) line assigned to low bass strings – pure Shostakovich, this! It opens out into a tense orchestral discourse at 10’58”

14:47 – The start of the storm. A curiously slow storm, this does nonetheless have staying power.

19:33 – another dark passage of music, culminating in a bold clarinet cry at 20:42 (brilliantly played!)


The words can be found here, on page 20 of the pdf booklet

23:40 – A reedy introduction cuts to the singer who sings sorrowfully. Listen to the single strike of the percussion when he proclaims how “death the deliverer is here!” Vorobiev shows beautiful control at the end

28:05 – The Serenade, and the “magical, tender night!” has a silvery sheen in Denisov’s orchestration. There is a terrible stroke of death right at the end from the orchestra.

31:58 – The dance of Trepak is a rather grotesque affair, Vorobiev taking the lead even as the forest closes in through swirling woodwind and strings.

36:12 – a triumphant start to The Field Marshal, with strings swirling and trumpets blazing in the heat of battle. A thrilling and ultimately uplifting end, the singer defiant even in death.


1:05:22 – the cold winter casts its frozen spell, but with elaborate flourishes from the orchestra less than two minutes in Glazunov quickly sets out his stall for a colourful piece.

1:11:37 – a jaunty second part of the Ice variation, showing off the composer’s prowess with orchestration

1:21:07 – a sweeping violin melody that sees the culmination of Spring.

1:22:35 – The lovely Waltz of Corn Flowers and Poppies, music that brings summer in with a real swing – though Volkov is very subtle in this performance, the poise of the waltz reminding me of the Strausses.

1:26:36 – the Variation within Summer, complete with burbling clarinet.

1:31:58 – probably the most famous tune heard within The Seasons. This is the soaring Bacchanal, the dance that opens Autumn. The accompaniment effectively describes the leaves swirling around!

1:39:55 – the bracing final section, The Satyr.

Want to hear more?

For more Glazunov, the Violin Concerto is heartily recommended, a single movement piece lasting 20 minutes that packs in thrills and spills with plenty more good tunes.

This website is already exploring a fair bit of Musorgsky, having talked about Pictures at an Exhibition earlier in the week. For even more I would take a deep breath and explore the incredible epic opera Khovantschina, one of the great cornerstones of Russian opera.

For Shostakovich there is plenty more to hear, but keeping in with his works for stage and screen, I would suggest the ballet The Age of Gold, a story about football!


*song cycle – as the name suggests, a group of songs written by a composer tending to focus on a specific theme or author.

For more concerts click here

Pictures at an Exhibition – Steven Osborne

Pictures at an Exhibition – Musorgsky’s much loved collection for piano played by Steven Osborne

steven-osborneSteven Osborne (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 2 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 3 March

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

Please note that recordings of these works by Steven Osborne are not available on Spotify – the Musorgsky however is available to hear on the Hyperion website. I have therefore chosen suitable alternatives and will change the time references below when the BBC iPlayer link expires.

What’s the music?

Rachmaninov – a selection of 4 Etudes-Tableaux (1916-17) (13 minutes)

Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) (36 minutes)

What about the music?

Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition is a much-loved group of pieces, capturing the imagination of performers and arrangers alike. Although written originally for piano it has enjoyed life in several guises, most famously in a tremendous orchestration by Ravel but also through arrangements for all sorts of instrumental combinations, including brass band and even pop group – which Emerson, Lake and Palmer released as a live album in 1971.

The composer wrote it so the listener takes the part of the viewer at an art exhibition – in this case a series of paintings by the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. Some of the pictures are separated by Promenades, where Musorgsky takes a breather to portray the viewer moving between paintings, reacting to what they have just seen. The pictures often refer to Russian legend, and some of them are grotesque – Gnomus, for instance, a gnome with crooked legs, or The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a depiction of the terrifying Russian witch Baba-Yagá. There are social interactions – children playing (Tuileries), a rich man meeting a poor man (Samuel Goldberg and Schmüyle) and a violent quarrel (The Market at Limoges) – as well as two striking depictions of buildings in The Old Castle and an imposing Great Gate of Kiev, with which the exhibition ends.

Complementing Pictures are four of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux, part of a set of pictorial studies published in 1917. In this case the objects of Rachmaninov’s characterisation were hardly if ever revealed, but the four chosen invite the listener to create an image. They are a brisk march, a contemplation, a scene at a fair (as described by the composer) and a restless mood.

Performance verdict

Steven Osborne won a Gramophone Award for his Hyperion recording of Pictures in 2013, and it was easy to see why here – there was the odd wrong note but this was generally because he was striving for maximum expression, which he found in a compelling performance. His pacing was ideal, so that some of the really loud moments – the old cart Bydlo grinding into action, or The Great Gate of Kiev in all its splendour – built inexorably from start to climax point.

The Rachmaninov was terrific, an indication that Osborne is spending a lot of time at the moment discovering his piano music. The Etudes-Tableaux do not really feature regularly in concert, partly because they are hard to bring off, but Osborne managed it handsomely here.

After the Musorgsky we had the considerable bonus of a serene Rachmaninov Prelude in D major, which tugged at the heart strings in all the right places.

What should I listen out for?

Because they are so well-loved, I have opted to describe each of the Pictures below:


6:31 – the second Étude-tableau, a spacious reverie with a particularly beautiful floated central section, where the key changes from C minor to C major (8:44).

11:41 – the third Étude-tableau, brightly voiced with crisp rhythms.


18:36 – the first Promenade. Musorgsky’s viewer has a quick stride!

19:51 – Gnomus. Dark, grotesque and unpredictable, with a heavy line for the piano’s left hand and some ominous trills (22:11). After this the viewer ambles on to….

23:40 – The Old Castle. The melody is a depiction of a troubadour singing – but the mood is grey and heavy of heart, the harmony almost completely static. A weighty Promenade moves the viewer on to…

28:43 – Tuileries. A delicate description of children’s play, over in a flash!

29:40 – Bydlo. A depiction of a Polish cart grinding into action. The heavy weight of the machinery is supplied by the piano’s left hand, and the cart recedes into the distance at the end. Osborne applies as much weight to this as possible while the vehicle lumbers past! The viewer pauses briefly to take stock, before…

34:10 – The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells. An amazingly vivid depiction of the little birds in clipped figures for the piano right hand, played very delicately here.

35:21 – Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. An imposing dialogue with the grandeur of the rich man (Goldenberg) and the quavering speech of the poor man (Schmüyle). After this the viewer moves on with another Promenade.

38:59 – The Market at Limoges. An excitable cackle of voices from the piano here, tripping over themselves and becoming increasingly out of control as they career into…


40:22. Darkness descends as we move underground, Musorgsky conveying the stillness of space. The melodic figure of the Promenade appears (from 43:16), though here it appears shrouded in mist

45:26 – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. I often think this piece on its own inspired a lot of rock music – it has the sort of figure you would not find out of place on a King Crimson album. The hammering figure on the left hand feels like drums and bass guitar combined while the right hand is almost completely unhinged. This leads straight into…


The Great Gate of Kiev

48:40. The massive outlines of the gate are clear in the big block chords Musorgsky writes for the piano, which become ever more imposing as the piece progresses. Towards the end (50:22) a huge peal of bells rings out, then there is another reference to the Promenade (52:01) ahead of an emphatic final set of chords, by which time the pianist is playing as loud as he possibly can!


56:06 – Rachmaninov – Prelude in D major. A graceful and rather moving complement to Pictures!

Want to hear more?

Excerpts from Steven Osborne’s recording for Hyperion can be heard here

For more Musorgsky, I would suggest the Songs and Dances of Death, for low male voice and orchestra – which is ironically on BBC Radio 3 this Thursday 5 February , with a listener’s guide to come here! For more Rachmaninov I would suggest an earlier work, the Five Morceaux Op.3. This group of five pieces contains the famous Prelude in C sharp minor.

For more concerts click here