With the wonderful Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory closed, I suppose I will have to start getting comfortable in the Tschaikowsky Hall, a bulky Stalinist building with an oversized amphitheater inside, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last week. As I remarked about this Hall last year, the cloakrooms remain peculiarly ill-designed and inefficient, especially considering everyone in Russia wears a coat, and announcers continue to read the program aloud during the concert, in case the audience is either illiterate and/or has forgotten what it bought tickets to hear.
Tonight, I decided to try seats a little higher up in the amphitheater to see if I could find better acoustics (the hall is neither bad nor good – in the Moscow scale of venues, somewhere in the middle between the fantastic Conservatory and the dead House of Music). I think I’ve now decided that mid-way up the amphitheater and center is best, and will continue to purchase tickets there.
On the program tonight were Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Ninth Symphony, performed by Valery Polyansky and the Russian Staatskapelle (I still cannot think of a good English translation of this, so will continue to stick with the more familiar German name until someone comes up with something better). Polyansky produces spirited performances with this middle-tier orchestra, able to bring out the emotions despite somewhat sloppy and not-quite-in-tune playing by the orchestra, which sounded at times a bit like an “original” instruments orchestra except that it was using properly-tunable instruments. His Staatskapelle chorus was even bolder and had better accuracy. Still, orchestra and chorus reacted well to Polyansky. Their verve partially made up for the periodic sour and sometimes screechy notes, except in the more-exposed third movement adagio where the orchestra could not hide its imperfect pitch. The excellent dynamic free-swinging blonde tympanist, given pride of place in the elevated center back of the stage between the women’s and men’s chorus, reminded me of my niece Nina.
The piano soloist for the Fantasy was the conductor’s daughter, Tatyana Polyanskaya. She had a wonderfully light touch, and as the music grew louder and more forceful she allowed her fingers to wash over the keys like a wave, rather than pounding on them, giving a full sound able to balance and blend perfectly with the chorus.
In the Ninth Symphony, the vocal portion opened with the cavernous bass of Sergey Toptigin, who although not especially large must have enormous lungs hidden under his oversized black smock, effortlessly filling the entire amphitheater with his exhortations. Unfortunately, these exhortations were unintelligible, since his German was atrocious (among other things, he appears to have erased all of the umlauts from his text). The other three soloists, a nondescript bunch (soprano Tatyana Fedotova, alto Lyudmila Kuznyetsova, and tenor Vsevolod Grivnov), sounded fine when they were not trying to compete with Toptigin for air. However, as soon as they tried to match his volume, they all began to shriek, especially Grivnov, who had the unfortunate fate to stand next to Toptigin, whose air-sucking vacuum-cleaner lungs left no air in that part of the stage for Grivnov.
Given how unpleasant the weather (solid sleet), combined with learning the sad news of the closure of the Conservatory hall, I needed this to cheer me up.