Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Mahler

The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under Pavel Kogan gave an excellent reading of Mahler’s 9th this evening in the Tschaikowsky Hall.

Kogan paired the symphony with Schubert’s 4th (the “Tragic”), presumably to demonstrate Mahler’s classical antecedents.  The Schubert was workmanlike, but given the manner in which Kogan shaped the Mahler, the pairing came across as odd.  Mahler’s 9th, while tying up elements of his own life, is musically-speaking not a backwards-looking symphony but instead looks forward to a musical language that Schostakowitsch would develop.  Nowhere was this more clear than in the two outer movements, where Kogan drew out sonorities that clearly provided a preview for Schostakowitsch.  The two outer movements bracketed the grotesque dances that make up the inner movements.  There may be a lesson in those two inner movements, but the lesson I took away from tonight’s performance was from the frame: this symphony does not represent the triumph of the human soul over death, which cannot be defeated, but rather the triumph of the human soul over life, which must be defeated.

Now that’s a philosophical performance.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


Tonight in the Tschaikowsky Hall, the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv went through the motions of Kullervo by Sibelius.

This is a work which may require Scandinavians to get just right.  Based on an ancient Finnish legend, the story will never appear in a Hollywood film, and has – to my knowledge – only been set twice, both times by Finnish composers (Sibelius and Leevi Madetoja).  Kullervo, the tragic anti-hero, is sold into slavery as a child.  He escapes, but whatever he does leads to evil.  He eventually rapes a woman, but then discovers after the fact that it is his long-lost sister.  When they realize this, she drowns herself and he goes into war hoping to redeem himself by being killed in battle.  Unfortunately, he proves invincible and cannot die in battle.  He happens to return to the spot where he raped his sister and she killed herself, a spot so evil that nothing will grow there any more.  He asks his magic sword to kill him in this very place, and the sword obliges.

Needless to say, such a story requires a dark and dismal reading.  Sibelius got the music right, but Pletnëv on the podium did not, making the piece too light and lyrical.  I also wonder if Pletnëv had properly rehearsed the orchestra, which missed cues and botched timing.  I would also have hoped that Pletnëv could manage to produce a more remorseful sound from his orchestra (a world-class ensemble he founded twenty years ago), but I am not sure this music spoke to him.  Only the brass and the percussion, at points of climax, played with adequate shock.

The male chorus of the Moscow Academy of Choral Arts had its head buried in the Finnish-language text.  Probably for that reason, Pletnëv saw fit to bring in two Finns to sing the solo parts.  However, mezzo Tuija Knihtilä and baritone Hannu Niemelä did not always manage to make themselves fully audible above the orchestra.

Mariinsky Theater (St. Petersburg), Bolshoi New Stage (Moscow)

Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

The Mariinsky Theater performed Bartók’s dark psychodrama Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on the Bolshoi New Stage, with Willard White as Duke Bluebeard, Yelena Zhidkova as Judith, and Valery Gergiev on the podium.

It is obviously hard for me to judge proficiency in Hungarian language, but the two non-native speakers (White is Jamaican, Zhidkova is Russian) gave a fluent and chilling reading. The staging was nonsense – the opera was originally rejected in 1911 as a submission by Bartók to a theater competition because the judges did not consider this opera to contain any theater. Staging should be minimal, and the ability of the two singers to portray the psychological drama determines a successful performance. Although not over-staged, the director was trying to do something on stage, but that something was unclear. White and Zhidkova essentially ignored the stage and got on with their jobs, fully supported by Gergiev and his orchestra in the pit.

I decided to keep my cashmere scarf on when I checked my coat (and my wool scarf). This was a good thing – although the theater was not cold, the performance gave me chills and having the scarf proved useful. The audience stood for a moment of silence before the performance in memory of the victims from today’s terrorist attack on Domodedovo Airport – something which certainly added to the chill.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress

For The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky tonight, Moscow’s Pokrovsky Chamber Opera sung in a Russian translation (from the original English), and used a 1978 staging by the late Boris Pokrovsky himself (the longtime Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Opera back when it was good from 1952-1982, who founded the Moscow Chamber Opera and who died in 2009, after which the Chamber Opera was named after him).

Pokrovsky was a master, and understood drama in a way few directors seem to these days.  The concept of this staging was actually quite simple.  Stravinsky had based the story on a series of paintings by William Hogarth.  So Pokrovsky put enormous picture frames on the stage, which when the drapes were pulled back from each frame revealed one of scenes in the original Hogarth paintings.  The cast emerged from the paintings to act out the scenes, dressed in period costumes from early eighteenth-Century Britain.  The rest of the props were kept simple and suggestive, allowing the cast to act their roles out.

I would imagine that singers can very much enjoy such stagings, since they get to demonstrate their full talents without distractions.  The theater layout was different from the way it had been set up the last time I was there (for Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair in the Fall) – the room was set up like a typical theater this time.  Although Stravinsky scored this opera for a small classical-sized orchestra, he nevertheless wrote a full opera and having a little more distance between the audience and the stage allowed for better visual and acoustical perspective.  The cast excelled – particularly Olesya Starukhina as Anne Truelove and Borislav Molchanov as Tom Rakewell (although Mochanov’s voice may have been too large for this theater – he often needed but failed to modify his volume).  Igor Gromov kept the whole work moving from the podium.  He seemed humorless, but considering he created the platform to allow the cast to provide the humor, and orchestra and cast sounded excellent, he should get the credit.

Russische Staatskapelle, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


What is turning into the “usual suspects,” Valery Polyansky and the Russian Staatskapelle, performed Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis tonight.

The orchestra sounded muted tonight, like it was playing underneath a bowl.  However, this may have had something to do with the fact that the place was sold out and I could not get tickets in the area that I have determined has the Tschaikowsky Hall’s best acoustics.  Instead, I sat lower down in the more expensive seats with worse sound.  I did not come to hear the orchestra anyway, but rather Polyansky’s fantastic chorus, which I continue to rely on for these large choral works.  The chorus is not especially large, but it produces a big sound, filling the hall with clear diction and full notes.  This chorus not only impresses during the larger moments, but also the softer ones, where it can support the soloists in producing graceful and delicate moods.  Nowhere was this more important than during the Benedictus, when the chorus needed to back up fully (but without overwhelming) the four soloists and an aetherial violin solo.

Tonight’s soloists, Tatyana FedotovaLyudmila KuznyetsovaOleg Dolgov, and Aleksandr Kiselev made a well-balanced ensemble.  Of them, the soprano, Fedotova, a soloist from Moscow’s Pokrovsky Chamber Opera, had the most pure and beautiful vocal instrument.

Incidentally, I remain at a loss for what to call this orchestra.  The familiar German term, Staatskapelle, will have to continue to suffice.  I have actually now found recordings with Polyansky and these forces, with the name translated into English as the “Russian State Symphony Orchestra.”  However, that name is already taken by a completely different orchestra (an excellent one, but under the emotionless direction of Mark Gorenstein).  That other one used to be the USSR State Symphony Orchesta, and the Staatskapelle used to be the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra.  Apparently the Staatskapelle cannot find a good name for itself in English either, so now I do not feel so deficient.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Martinů, Dvořak

It may surprise people that the main reason I attended tonight’s concert of the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra in the Tschaikowsky Hall came from a desire to hear some works by Bohuslav Martinů, since his music does not receive much play.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, this orchestra was known as the Large Symphony Orchestra of the Soviet Radio.  On the podium tonight was Gintaras Rinkevičius, a Soviet-trained Lithuanian, whom my mother might describe as a “tall glass of water.”  In fact, he should not have conducted from a podium: in order to remain in the sight-lines of the orchestra, he had to hunch over rather severely; whenever he forgot to hunch, I think the orchestra members may have strained their necks looking up for his cues.  However, he had a clear technique and abundant energy.

The first half of the concert contained three works by Martinů composed in 1932-33, which made a clear progression.  The Serenade #2 for Strings opened the concert, and in it Martinů used an eighteenth-century classical style with just a hint of update.  The next work, the Serenade #3 for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings was also remarkably classical in form (although in only two self-contained movements) but had sufficient dissonance to give it a mean edge and useful contrasts.  The third work in the progression, the Concerto for Trio and String Orchestra was clearly a child of the twentieth century, with the competing tonal but dissonant lines, often performed by the trio, leading naturally to soaring harmonic chorales in the orchestra.

After the intermission came the more-known Symphony #8 by Antonín Dvořák.  The orchestra sounded great, and Rinkevičius certainly drew out the energy of the piece, but in his efforts to keep it crisp he may have produced technique that came across as too abrupt, almost starting-and-stopping between each phrase.

The concert tonight was surprisingly crowded, although I think because they let all the little old ladies out of the nursing home.  They clapped between every movement (audiences in Moscow usually know better).  And they hacked out several lungs during the first half of the concert, so that I think many of them did not survive until the second half, when many seats were suddenly vacant and the coughing stopped.  Either that or the sick old ladies were all Martinů fans who hate Dvořák.