Taneyev, Scriabin

My first concert back in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, which has reopened after being closed for renovations since June 2010.  This hall has some of the best acoustics in the world, and I am pleased to confirm that the renovations did not damage the sound.  After so many concerts during the interim in the Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall, it is nice to be back.

Valery Polyansky and his Russian Staatskapelle presented a somewhat idiosyncratic program of music by Sergey Taneyev and Aleksandr Skryabin.

The Staatskapelle chorus began with five a capella pieces selected from a series of Taneyev choral songs setting poems by Yakov Polonsky and dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory and younger brother of the composer Anton Rubinstein, who founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  It may be a tad ironic that Russia’s two leading music schools were founded by Jews, and that, despite periodic purges, Jews have continued to play a disproportionate role in Russian musical life.

The Taneyev a capella works themselves were uninteresting.  However, Taneyev was a master of counterpoint, and hearing this talented chorus sing his exquisite harmonies in the soaring acoustics of the Moscow Conservatory made for a rich experience.

These pieces also did well to set up the mood for what followed.  The devastatingly black performance of Taneyev’s John of Damascus – described by the composer as a “Russian Requiem” – moved me to tears.  Polyansky and his team produced probably the best performance of any single work I have heard all year.

I did not think they could top this after the intermission, but I nevertheless returned to my seat.  The chorus dismissed for the night, only the orchestra remained, and – as I have noted before – Polyansky’s orchestra is far inferior to his chorus.  But in this hall, with this mood, they rose to the occasion.  Although sometimes muddy, they performed Skryabin’s third symphony, the “Divine Poem,” with great passion.  Skryabin believed that musical notes represented visual colors, and Polyansky and his Staatskapelle Orchestra did their best to display them, helped by the glowing – and freshly-painted – Conservatory Hall.

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