Russian Staatskapelle, Moscow Conservatory

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.

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.

Russische Staatskapelle, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


Back at the Tschaikowsky Hall for my final time this calendar year for another all-Tschaikowsky program, again with the Russian Staatskapelle under the baton of Valery Polyansky.

Tonight was the best I have heard this particular orchestra sound.  While still not top-flight, the orchestra tonight demonstrated an accuracy it has not exhibited previously.  Part of this may have come from the strikingly poor attendance: the sparsely-populated hall simply did not have enough bodies in it to absorb the sound.  On the other hand, this reason cannot account for the orchestra’s sudden ability to play the notes.  However, the empty hall also exposed the acoustical problems, resulting in a noticeable imbalance.  From my seat, the middle strings, clarinets, and high brass were too faint, and the first violins, basses, other woodwinds, and low brass more bombastic, for reasons that clearly did not stem from Polyansky’s interpretation nor – judging by the positive reaction of people sitting on the other side of the hall – from the orchestral playing.

Polyansky has a great sense of drama, which has allowed him to craft the theatrical readings I have heard him produce in previous concerts with this troupe.  The Hamlet Overture-Fantasy which opened the program allowed him to demonstrate this talent, in a presentation worthy of Shakespeare.  We experienced not just a simple concert overture, but the drama of the play that Tschaikowsky intended the piece to introduce.

The Staatskapelle Chorus then joined for the next work, a seldom (if ever) performed cantata, “Moscow,” written by Tschaikowsky in a hurry for the coronation of Czar Aleksandr III.  A rousing work, Tschaikowsky dutifully fulfilled his otherwise botched commission (not the composer’s fault the organizers botched the commission; they paid him for a rousing piece, so he wrote a rousing piece as fast as he could assemble it, but there is a reason it is never performed, nor did he ever give it an opus number).

The chorus, as usual, sounded great.  The mezzo soloist, Lyudmila Kuznyetsova, who is obviously a frequent collaborator with Polyansky and the Staatskapelle, has failed to impress me in German, and obviously prefers to sing in Russian.  She is also not really a mezzo, which may explain the more fundamental reason I have not been impressed.  The musical line in this cantata was far too deep for the advertised mezzo voice, and really calls for an alto, and ironically Kuznyetsova was actually better suited as a result.  She should stick to alto parts (whether labeled as such or not), since she demonstrated a gorgeous lower register.  She should also stick to singing in Russian.

Sergey Toptigin sang the bass solos.  This is the same normal-sized fellow with the huge lungs I heard perform the Beethoven Ninth with these forces in October.  His voice tonight sounded in healthy form whenever the musical accompaniment was quiet, however it quickly became overwhelmed by the orchestra as the music began crescendo.  The only explanation I have for this would come from where he stood on the stage and which direction he faced, relative to where I was sitting.  I think his voice projected over to the other side of the hall and the acoustical design never brought it properly to me (see my comments above about the imbalance in the orchestra).  Since he has such a big voice, and it never came to me, for all I know it may have gone out the far exit and into the big square in front of the hall, a scene of frequent political rallies.  I hope the people waving the Russian flags in the square tonight enjoyed his performance.

After the intermission we heard the Orchestral Suite #3.  Not exactly a dramatic work, it is less suited for Polyansky’s talents.  Pretty enough, the music itself does not really say much.  In the final movement, Polyansky managed to make the clearest impression: the movement consists of a long series of variations on a theme, and Polyansky got the orchestra to create a different mood for each variation, to produce a very intelligent performance of an otherwise not-so-sensational work.

Russische Staatskapelle, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


Second night in a row at the Tschaikowsky Hall, this time for some actual Tschaikowsky.  The program said this concert was to celebrate his 170th birthday, but he was born on 7 May and it is now 24 November, and that’s an even bigger gap than between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, so I’m not sure what calendar they were using to do the scheduling.

The Russian Staatskapelle performed once again under Valery Polyansky.  Tonight, he split up the chorus and orchestra, with an a capella chorus before the intermission, and the Fourth Symphony (with no chorus) after it.

Russia has a long tradition of religious a capella music, rich in eastern polyphony.  Tschaikowsky added works to it.  The nine pieces on the program tonight, however, were not among them, instead emerging from Western traditions and altogether uninteresting.  Nevertheless, I have praised the Staatskapelle chorus before, when I heard it sing Mahler and Beethoven, so hearing it now without an orchestra in front of it made the first half of the concert rewarding.  Sumptuous singing.

The Staatskapelle orchestra, on the other hand, has previously struck me as understanding big concepts but not quite executing small details.  In general, that also applied this evening.  However, I would assume they are more comfortable with the Russian symphonies than with the Austrian ones, and so sounded more confident and accurate.  I also like Polyansky’s spirited readings with this orchestra.

The chorus was slow taking the stage at the start of the concert, so we were sitting in our seats for maybe fifteen minutes waiting.  The man next to me struck up a conversation.  He asked me what I thought about the acoustics in the Tschaikowsky Hall.  I was less than enthusiastic, but said they were reasonable for a medium-to-higher-up seat (where we sat, and where I buy my seats now, having decided the acoustics are not good in the expensive seats lower down).  He told me that amphitheater-style auditoria had the best acoustics.  I said that if they were designed right, this could be the case, but not necessarily.  I pointed out that the Moscow Conservatory (sadly still closed) had the best acoustics in Russia, and it is a “box shape” (to use his term).  He did not seem impressed, and asked about how it is in “your country.”  I told him the Musikverein had excellent acoustics, and it is also box-shaped.  And the best hall I have ever been in for acoustics is the Tonhalle in Zurich, which is also box-shaped.  He said it was not possible, because amphitheaters are always better.  Then he turned his head away and did not say another word to me all night – not in the few minutes we still had to wait before the concert, nor in the intermission, nor even “good night” as he turned and walked out the long way down the aisle to avoid even exiting the same way as I did.

Russische Staatskapelle, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


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.

Russische Staatskapelle, Moscow Conservatory

Mendelssohn, Mahler

The orchestra’s name doesn’t translate into English very well, but does translate into familiar German. Here it was conducted by its chief conductor, Valery Polyansky, who was quite good (first saw him in March conducting the Conservatory Orchestra for Verdi’s Requiem).

He had the audience’s undivided attention thanks to the flamboyantly gay announcer who trotted out on stage to read the program (the Conservatory does not seem to do this at every concert like the Tscahikowsky Hall, but does do it sometimes – not this particular flamboyant announcer, just some announcer to read the program aloud; mostly they are not remotely flamboyant). This guy stared down someone on the balcony whose mobile phone went off and ordered him to turn it off because it was rude. Needless to say, everyone else in the audience who had not been bothered to turn off their phones also did so at this point. Then he stopped talking and glared at anyone who dared shuffle in their seats, and waited for them to settle down before continuing to state the program. Actually, maybe they should get this guy to come out to read the program for every concert – I don’t remember the last time I saw an audience behave so well.

Anyway, on to the music:

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano. The violin soloist, Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky (who may possibly be the son of conductor Gennady R. – certainly about the right age), was supposed to have been the soloist a week and a half ago with the Bolshoi Orchestra, when I believe he was stuck elsewhere by volcanic ash. So I now got to hear him. He is good, but uses too much vibrato and so his tone was a bit over-sweet (but much better than the violinist who replaced him at the Bolshoi Orchestra concert). The pianist was Vladimir Ovchinnikov, who was also very good. The Mendelssohn is a pleasant piece, but there is not much more to say about it.

After the intermission (and reappearance by the announcer to ensure order) came the reason I went to the concert: Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. There is something about the way Russian orchestras perform Mahler – it has to do with the Russian tradition of playing wind instruments, which gives them a different timbre than in the West, and which works to put extra edge on Mahler’s angst. I think it works better on Symphonies 4 and later, but it is OK for the first three.

It was a rousing performance. Polyansky obviously has a good feel for Mahler. I liked his conducting. The orchestra was far from flawless, but did put effort into it. The chorus was also in full form. The soloists were nothing special, though: the mezzo, Lyudmila Kuznetsova, had a embarrassingly thick Russian accent in her German, and the soprano, Yelena Yevseyeva, although better, was hard for me to take seriously because she obviously shared a make-up kit with the announcer, and over-applied the make-up as much as he had.