Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Grieg

As a rarity, the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv performed the complete music to Grieg’Peer Gynt in the Tschaikowsky Hall tonight.

For this concert, we not only got the complete music, but also a literary reading.  Aleksey Bruni crafted Ibsen’s story into Russian poetry, and did a reading, accompanied by the music.  The portions of Ibsen’s original text that Grieg set to music (but which are normally performed these days – if at all – transcribed for instruments instead of sung) were restored to chorus and soloists.

Some of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music is well-known from the two suites that he prepared and which get performed frequently enough.  Normally, the music, while pleasant, comes across disembodied and not necessarily dramatic.  But putting the music back into a literary context, the music regains the drama it loses in the suites.  The Russian National Orchestra, full of splendid musicians, captured the drama to the fullest.  Bruni provided a lively and enthusiastic reading.  The soloists, two young singers Anastasiya Byelukova (soprano) and Igor Golovatyenko (baritone), had large, clear, and pleasant voices which filled the hall nicely.  And the chorus, from the Popov Academy of Choral Arts, also managed its way well through the Norwegian texts, blending its sound and boldness with the orchestra’s.

I probably would have appreciated this performance more if my Russian were good enough to fully understand more of the poetry.  But I got the sense of the performance.  I’m not convinced Grieg’s score is first-rate music drama, but hearing it in this context – more like its natural environment as incidental music to a drama rather than as isolated numbers in an orchestral suite – certainly added an extra dimension.

Considering the recent child-sex scandal at Penn State, I wondered whether I should patronize a concert conducted by Pletnëv.  The Thai authorities dropped all charges against him, but there has still never been an explanation for what those young boys were doing at his home in Thailand (about which he claims ignorance).  In the end I went to the concert, but Pletnëv still comes across as a seedy character.

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Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Sibelius

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.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Beethoven, Strauss, Ravel, Britten, Pletnëv, Tschaikowsky

Again, another evening with the Russian National Orchestra, indeed a world-class ensemble, this time holding its 20th anniversary gala in the Tschaikowsky Hall.  Good to hear it playing music it is more familiar with – not so technical as its Wagner on Monday.  Kent Nagano conducted the first half of the concert, and he was not as technical as he had been on Monday either.  His form remained easy for the orchestra to follow, but with orchestra and conductor more familiar with the music, they let loose tonight.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture #3, in a dramatic reading, albeit taken a little too fast.  Don Juan by Richard Strauss followed.  In this second piece, Nagano allowed the winds to play in a more-typically Russian style, which may have made this the most neurotic Don Juan I’ve heard (different, albeit in a good way).  The first half of the concert closed with Ravel’s Bolero, a work which allowed the individual members of the orchestra to showcase themselves.  The Bolero is a dreadfully interminable piece, no matter who performs it, but I tried to block out the big picture music and focus on the individual instrumentalists, which with this group made the work bearable.

After the intermission, Mikhail Pletnëv, the orchestra’s founder, took the podium.  They’ve obviously let him out of prison in Thailand again for the occasion.

Pletnëv began his half of the concert with Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell (originally composed for an educational film, with commentary, as the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” here performed in its revised purely orchestral version).  Like Ravel’s Bolero, this piece allows the individual instrumentalists to showcase themselves, and that they did.  Although Ravel was known as a great orchestrator, Britten was by far the more talented and creative composer, and Pletnëv’s reading with the RNO certainly provided virtuosity, excitement, and even raw aggression in a way maybe only a Russian orchestra could achieve.

Pletnëv’s own Jazz Suite, which he composed last year, rounded off the scheduled portion of the program.  Pletnëv clearly selected the work because it also allowed for different orchestra members – second chairs and others – to display their own virtuosity.  Unlike the jazz-inspired works composed by Schostakowitsch to thumb his nose at the Soviet authorities, which were really classical pieces inspired by jazz, Pletnëv’s piece was actual jazz music scored for full orchestra.  As such, it gave me the feeling that I was back at a Boston Pops concert.  I’m not so familiar with jazz, so cannot judge the originality of the work, but it did not come across as very original, as Schostakowitsch’s jazz-inspired works do, for example.  Still, the orchestra had fun, and so, therefore, did the audience.

As an encore, Pletnëv led the orchestra in an inspiring and rousing rendition of Tschaikowsky’s Slavonic March.  I think the audience wanted more encores, but, sadly, none was forthcoming.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Wagner, Die Walküre

If people are looking for Wagnerian voices these days, perhaps they need to spend more time looking around the post-Soviet space.  There should be enough talent over here, some of which was on show tonight at a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Tschaikowsky Hall with the Russian National Orchestra under Kent Nagano.

The undisputed star of the evening was the Wotan, Aleksey Tanovitsky, a member of the Ensemble from the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.  He has a warm deep voice – more bass than baritone – and portrayed Wotan as a concerned father (indeed, only two characters in this opera are not Wotan’s children).  I suspect he was also the member of the cast most familiar with his role, since, more than anyone else, he had a hard time standing still on stage and clearly wanted to act.  He has a large gorgeous voice, which may not have the edge associated with Wotan when he gets angry, but he made his portrayal warm, engaging, and sympathetic.

There has been some hype about the search for a tenor capable of singing Siegmund.  The man selected was Mikhail Vekua, a Georgian who was ethnically-cleansed from Abkhazia in the early 1990s and ended up at the Moscow Conservatory.  I’ve seen him – and been impressed by him – before as Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Stanislavsky Opera.  Small of stature, he nevertheless has the voice.  This was his first-ever German role, and while he learned to sing in German (with good and clear pronunciation), he clearly does not speak a word of German.  So he had to read closely from the text.  When he tried acting and looked away, losing his place, which he unfortunately did often enough, he got the music right but had to insert nonsense syllables.  And since he did not understand what he was singing, he did not always get the emotions right.  I’m not convinced he is a Heldentenor, but perhaps if he gets comfortable in German then he may develop in that direction.

As Sieglinde, Svyetlana Sozdateleva had a relatively deep soprano voice capable of great swells of sound and emotional acting.  The Armenian bass Vazlen Gazaryan sang a very dark, threatening, and impressive Hunding.  These two could go on stage anywhere.  Similarly, Kseniya Vyaznikova also held her own as a scalding and scolding Fricka.  She made sure husband Wotan knew who was really the boss.

Unfortunately, there was one weak link: the title role.  Larisa Gogolevskaya, as Brünhilde, another import from the Mariinsky, went sharp on most of her higher register.  Her voice was big enough, but she should perhaps sing lower soprano roles.

For the Russian National Orchestra, this concert must have been doubly unusual.  First, I do not believe they perform many complete operas.  Second, I doubt they perform much Wagner.  So not only did the music seem new to them, but they did not understand how to portray the drama.  This is a shame, since the Russian National Orchestra is world-class and the playing was certainly up to standard.  But Nagano, using a very crisp and clear technique, walked them carefully through it.  Although there were a few missed cues, in general they responded to him, but had to think so much about the music that they may have forgotten that they were performing an opera.  I also do not believe that this opera was in Nagano’s repertory previously.  So the performance was steady but not insightful.  At least Nagano clearly wanted the singers to shine, and kept a lid on the orchestra in order to allow the voices to predominate (although these were big voices, since the orchestra was on stage and not in the pit the potential was still there for the orchestra to overwhelm them, something Nagano ensured did not happen).

The acoustics halfway up the Tschaikowsky Hall are definitely better than in the more expensive seats.  Now that I have sat here for two concerts, I can confirm that.  Nevertheless, it does not come close to the now-closed Conservatory.  And the hall was in full communist mode tonight: the lady in the cloakroom insisted on seeing my ticket before she took my coat (even though I had already gone through building security and a separate ticket control just to get that far, and had waited for ten minutes in the cloakroom line since the Stalinist architects built this hall with the world’s most inefficiently-designed cloak rooms – why else would I be giving her my coat if I were not there for the concert?  There was another seemingly mandatory ticket check as well by the usher selling programs).  Also rather oddly, the concert was five hours long (the full opera plus intermissions), but began at the usual Moscow start time of 7:00 p.m. as opposed to an early start time, and did so on a Monday night; I have no idea why they did not start this earlier and/or schedule it for a non-work-night.  This does not bother me, since I am nocturnal, but must bother Russians who tend to be morning people – I suppose someone in Central Planning assigned them this night and since all concerts begin at 7:00 they were given no choice (better to do what we are told around here and never ask questions).

Russian National Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Lyadov, Cherepnin, Scriabin

Zany 20th Century Russian music tonight at the Conservatory. This is not a concert you would be likely to hear in the West:

Four tone poems by Anatoly Lyadov (Baba YagaThe Enchanted Lake, Kikimora, and From the Apocalypse), one by Nikolai Cherepnin (Enchanted Kingdom), and the 1st Symphony of Aleksandr Skryabin.

Brilliant playing by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv.