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.