Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky

Although not at all a fan of the Bolshoi, which has fallen to a level of petty bickering and political intrigue (with accompanying collapse in musical quality) that should only be possible in an Italian opera house, I decided to attend a concert by the Bolshoi Orchestra in the Tschaikowsky Concert Hall this evening for the chance to hear some less-performed music under the baton of Aleksandr Lazarev: a suite from Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Rachmaninov’s Symphony #1.

The Prokofiev suite, in an arrangement by Lazarev himself, opened with the sort of muddy string playing I have come to expect from this orchestra.  However, under Lazarev’s enthusiastic direction, the playing did improve somewhat, especially when the winds got to join in.  It is easy to forget that this orchestra, besides being an opera orchestra, is also a ballet orchestra.  So if it can do very little else, at least it can dance.  Lazarev helped it along by himself dancing wildly all over the podium.  At several points, he got himself spun completely around so that he had turned his back completely on the orchestra and appeared to be trying to conduct the audience.  He also sprung himself off the podium a couple of times, once dividing the first and second violins from each other, another time appearing to help out a cellist in the third row.  This may have been the best I have heard this orchestra sound, although someone really should put those murky strings out of their misery.

The dancing continued after the intermission, even though the music became moodier.  The Rachmaninov Symphony #1 is an odd work – the composer’s first attempt at major symphonic music, and although he had already done quite a bit of composition, including an opera, this piece could have used some more maturing.  Part of this has to do with its unfortunate history, which meant it was never properly edited: its premiere under the baton of Aleksandr Glazunov was an unmitigated disaster.  Glazunov, who made such overwhelmingly positive contributions to music through his teaching, mentoring, administration, composing, and willingness to stand up for Jewish musicians against official Russian anti-Semitism, was not a talented conductor.  So, for the premiere of this symphony in 1897, Glazunov failed to rehearse the orchestra properly, preventing Rachmaninov from making the late edits that most composers do during the rehearsals before premieres, and Glazunov also showed up for the actual concert already heavily drunk.  As a result, the symphony received such awful reviews that Rachmaninov withdrew the orchestral score, which he buried in his desk, and then gave up composing completely for three years.  He intended to revise the work, but never got around to it, and the orchestral score eventually vanished.

After the composer’s death, the piece was reconstructed based on the individual instrumental scores (all of which had survived because Rachmaninov had forgotten to collect them and someone randomly stuffed them in a library where they sat for almost half a century) and enjoyed a bit of a renaissance – in fact, its US premiere by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra was part of the first complete symphony concert ever to be broadcast on live television.  It is a shame the composer never got around to revising the score: it has its brilliant and exciting moments, but these are connected by some rather dull bits which could have used some tightening.  Lazarev tried valiantly tonight, although a better orchestra might have helped.

Lazarev remains clearly very popular with the Moscow public, receiving prolonged and roaring applause.  He kept sneaking to the side of the stage to try to deflect the applause to the orchestra (the way a grade school conductor might, to indicate the audience should express its amazement that the children actually know how to hold their instruments – the Bolshoi Orchestra is not that bad, but given that it is the Bolshoi it really should sound much better than it does).  However, it was absolutely apparent that the audience was crying out for Lazarev and not for the orchestra.  Lazarev obliged everyone with an encore, something the Bolshoi Orchestra could not easily miss: the Adagio from Sleeping Beauty by Tschaikowsky.

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