Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Adams, Lutosławski, Brahms, Britten, Bernstein

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed a Sunday afternoon light concert of symphonic dances under the baton of Dmitry Liss, which ran through a number of styles: Six German Dances by Franz Schubert (as orchestrated by Anton Webern), the Chairman’s Dance from Nixon in China by John Adams, Five Dance Preludes for Clarinet and Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski (with Vladimir Permyakov on Clarinet), Hungarian Dance Nr. 6 by Johannes Brahms, the Musical Evening Suite by Benjamin Britten (based on Rossini), and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.

Liss kept the afternoon light and bouncy.  This worked best for the Brahms, with an almost-Hungarian lilt, and for the Bernstein, which Liss made sound like Bernstein had composed it under the influence of Stravinsky (maybe he did…?).  It worked less well for the Adams dance, which had a lot of movement and went absolutely nowhere, a typically poor effort by that ridiculously over-hyped composer.

After coffee and a sandwich, I migrated over to the Stanisklavsky.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

Now that it is safe to go hear the Russian State Symphony Orchestra again, after it has deposed Gorenstein, I have now heard it perform twice in six days.  Tonight it played in the Tschaikowsky Hall, with a program that included very different works by Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, and Schostakowitsch.  The orchestra handled all three idiomatically, switching styles with ease from one to the next.  That it did not shine as much as it did last Thursday I can attribute to the different acoustics of the hall – the Tschaikowsky Hall is simply not in the same league as the Conservatory.  However, this orchestra clearly enjoys life much more than it used to until recently, a joy that comes across in its playing.

The Romanian conductor Ion Marin took the podium with equal excitement.  The concert opened with a cheerful rendition of the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz.  The mood switched from upbeat to pensive for Tschaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo theme, with Ivan Karizna as the cello soloist.  Karizna is a 19-year-old Byelorussian, student at the Moscow Conservatory.  Oddly, from my vantage point, he looked a bit like Marin, and could have passed as the conductor’s illegitimate son.

Karizna produced a pleasant sound, and his agile fingers handled all the variations well from a technical perspective.  But he missed something, as his playing lacked depth.  At 19, he has plenty of time to mature.  He returned to the stage for an encore – a solo cello piece I did not recognize, that required additional showmanship.  Again, he could perform it technically very well, but still lacked something.  I also think his cello caught a cold between the Tschaikowsky and the encore, as it rasped a bit too much during the encore, a tone that was only rarely present during the Tschaikowsky and which was not required to interpret the encore.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch’s 6th Symphony.  This is a strange work, which Schostakowitsch described as showing “spring, joy, and youth,” but which instead has Schostakowitsch’s typically bitter and foreboding tones.  Employing another musical language from Berlioz and Tschaikowsky, the orchestra spoke Schostakowitsch fluently as well.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


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.

Camerata Siberia, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Rubinstein, Christus

I decided to be esoteric tonight and attend the Moscow premiere of Anton Rubinstein’s opera Christus at the Tschaikowsky Hall with the Tyumen Philharmonic Chorus and the Camerata Siberia under the direction of the composer’s great-grandson, Anton Sharoyev.  Rubinstein, one of the great nineteenth century pianists, composer, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and possibly more responsible than any other person for the quality of music education in Russia to this day, regarded “Christus” as his best composition.  More oratorio than opera, he completed it shortly before his death in 1894, and it had its posthumous premiere in 1895 in Stuttgart.  The score then completely vanished, until someone discovered it in a Berlin library in 2007.

Sharoyev, the composer’s great-grandson, who happens to be a conductor himself, dusted it off and taught it to his ensemble as an unstaged oratorio.  They have performed it before, but brought it to Moscow for the first time tonight.  The huge hall was 2/3rds empty, so I figured either the Muscovites were not as curious as I was, or they knew something I did not – or both.

I was looking forward to hearing this work.  Unfortunately, the people on stage had no musical talent whatsoever, therefore I cannot really say that I have heard the work.  I think it resembled something about halfway between oratorios by Felix Mendelssohn (Rubinstein’s friend and mentor) and by Franz Schmidt (certainly it was halfway between them chronologically).  But that is really just a guess.  Although it would seem that Rubinstein pre-dated Schoenberg in inventing atonal music with this work, I think this came not by design but more as a result of the orchestra not bothering to tune its instruments before playing, and the singers not being able to hold a pitch.

The orchestra was a small strings-only chamber ensemble.  Its sounds got lost in the Tschaikowsky Hall, and were periodically completely inaudible whenever the organ joined in.  This was probably for the better, because no conservatory would teach people to make those sounds on string instruments – I could not tell if the musicians were producing those sounds, or if the instruments themselves were crying on their own from the pain.

The Tyumen Philharmonic Chorus and pack of soloists did not do any better.  The opera was set to a German-language text, and these people sang German as though they had shoved marbles into their mouths first.  Periodically, and for no apparent reason, they lapsed into Russian.  This was slightly better – and if they were so uncomfortable with German diction, then they probably should have sung the whole thing in a Russian translation.  But even in Russian, although more clear with their words, they still could not sing.

I sat in a section full of well-dressed women in their 60s.  Judging by their facial expressions and head-shakings of utter disappointment, which matched mine, their assessment of the performance agreed with mine.  Like me, they had a hard time even giving a polite applause for effort.  These so-called musicians on stage did not merit that much – the most polite thing to do was to walk out without applauding (at least I did not boo them).  I would say a performance this bad might get them deported to Siberia, but apparently they already live in Siberia.

The saddest thing with this performance, though, is that it was so bad that they may have succeeded in burying this piece for another hundred years.  No one else has performed it since it was rediscovered, and maybe no one ever will.  That may be a shame, since it is possible the work was as good as Rubinstein thought it was.  We may never know.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Respighi, Bartok, Ravel, Liszt

An afternoon concert of lighter music at the Tschaikowsky Hall, with the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Dyenis Lotoyev.

The concert opened with Respighi’s Suite #1 of Ancient Dances and Airs.  I do not believe that this orchestra often plays music composed before the mid-19th century, and although Respighi wrote this in the 20th century, he based it on Renaissance music.  The orchestra seemed a little lost as a result.  Much of this I can directly attribute to the harpsichordist, who seemed incapable of playing in time, and who must have distracted the rest of the orchestra.  The performance greatly improved in the movements with limited harpsichord, which meant that the orchestra could capture the 20th-century sonorities Respighi used to enhance the music.

Bartok’Dance Suite followed, and here the orchestra was more at home.  Likewise for the piece following the intermission: Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes.  I do not listen to much Ravel, since I consider him excessively dull.  But he was good at orchestration, although not as great at it as his reputation.  Both the Bartok and the Ravel pieces, with lots of solo lines emerging from lush scoring, allowed this orchestra to showcase its skilled instrumentality.  This orchestra was formerly known as the USSR State Radio-Television Orchestra, and has retained its standards under its Principal Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev (who has been at the helm since 1974).  He turns 80 next year and is slowing down, so it will be curious to see who takes over this fine ensemble.

The concert concluded with Liszt’Mephisto Waltz #1, which was more like a scheduled encore than a natural follow-on.  Still nice to hear this orchestra get enthusiastic.

Moscow Soloists, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Vangelis, CPE Bach, Haydn, Gerard, Schnittke, Schubert

Of performing artists in Russia today, there is perhaps no greater cult figure (other than possibly Valery Gergiev) than the violist Yury Bashmet.  His concerts sell out instantly.  So I considered myself extremely lucky to get a ticket tonight for a concert dedicated to the memory of Mstislav Rostropovich, with Bashmet leading his own chamber ensemble, the Moscow Soloists.

Fittingly for a concert memorializing Rostropovich (and considering this was also the opening concert of a week-long cello festival), the first half of the concert was dedicated to works with solo cello.  The concert opened with the festival’s director Boris Andrianov performing the solo part in a work by Euangelos Odysseas Papathanasiou, better known by his pen-name “Vangelis.”  He is also better known as a composer of electronic music for synthesizer, often used in movie scores (including Chariots of Fire), but apparently he also does serious orchestral music.  His Elegy for Violoncello and Orchestra received its world premiere tonight.  Classical in scope, romantic in harmony, this moody piece set a nice warm tone, focussing the frame of reference in the Moscow Philharmonia’s large Stalinist amphitheater, the Tschaikowsky Hall, which might otherwise swallow such a small chamber ensemble.

Next up, Aleksandr Rudin performed the solo cello for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Cello Concerto in A.  His style contrasted with Andrianov – not quite warm, but more robust.  This provided a useful contrast with the orchestra, highlighting his nimble solo work against the backdrop.  Otherwise, with such a talented orchestra, the solo parts might get lost.  This aggressive approach worked especially well during the outer movements, but less so during the slow middle movement, which tended to drag.

Steven Isserlis provided yet another style of playing in performing Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto.  He embraced his cello in his arms and gave it a gentle massage.  In return, his instrument purred, producing a full and exceptionally complex tone.  Once again, Bashmet’s  Moscow Soloists supported the main soloist.  Soloists must indeed find it especially rewarding to play in front of such an ensemble.

The first half of the concert concluded with Andrianov and Rudin returning to the stage with a handful of members of the Moscow Soloists for the world premiere of the “Last Lullaby” by Arthur Gerard.  I have never heard of this composer, the program notes provided no clue, nor did an internet search turn up anything for me.  His “Lullaby” came across as more of a nightmare – like trying to fall asleep in a room full of loudly-ticking clocks.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  TICK-TOCK.  TICK-TOCK.  This piece got annoying in a hurry.

The concert’s second half opened with Schnittke’Monologue for Viola and Strings, with Bashmet playing the solo parts while conducting the rest with his bow.  Bashmet once famously answered a question about why he had taken up conducting by explaining that composers simply had not written enough solo music for viola to keep him employed as a violist.  So I suppose that when a composer did write a solo piece for viola, he gets stuck with it in his repertory.  Through his skill and dexterity, he produced some amazing noises with his instrument, not all of them unpleasant.  However, by the end of the third movement, I, too, wished that some composer might attempt to write some actual music for him to play.

The concert came to an absolutely thrilling conclusion with a performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, in the orchestration for string orchestra by Mahler.  Bashmet conducted a driven, dynamic performance, which became delicate at all the right moments.  Wow.  This I had to hear.

Classical music remains one thing that Russians do well.  Unfortunately, the Russian audiences do not deserve these performances.  Applause between every movement was not motivated by uncontrollable reactions to outstanding performances but rather from poor education from people who looked bored (when the correct time came for applause, it was no louder – indeed, I don’t think this audience came close to appreciating the performances tonight).  While people who leave their mobile phones on during concerts are disgusting enough, if their phones do ring then they need to turn them off, not let them ring and ring and ring (and ring again when the callers try again).  Talking to each other they could do at home without stepping outside in the fall weather, and thus they could also avoid the colds that had several people hacking up their lungs throughout the evening.  And the two gay men in the row in front of me should have used their money to buy a hotel room instead of concert tickets – foreplay in public in full view is just not acceptable (the poor Japanese women sitting directly behind them, unable to watch the stage without also watching this couple’s performance, seemed especially traumatized).  Boo, audience.

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Hall

Ginastera, Diemecke, Sibelius

Tonight was Finno-Argentinian night at the Tschaikowsky Hall.  I figured that would be different enough to warrant a listen.

Enrique Diemecke, an Argentinian conductor and composer (born in Mexico of German parentage), led the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.  The program opened with Alberto Ginastera’s Variations for Orchestra.  I cannot remember the last time I heard anything by Ginastera, or if indeed I have ever heard Ginastera’s music live.  This piece had plenty of pleasant moments, but no plot that I could discern.  The assorted variations allowed different instrumental soloists to showcase themselves, but even that concept (a concerto-for-orchestra idea) did not seem to form the logic of the work.  Each variation came disjointed.  Overall, the entire piece ran far too long, and never went anywhere.  A tortoise race, albeit with exotic tortoises, may have provided more excitement.

The second piece on the program was Diemecke’s own Marimba Concerto.  Diemecke’s music, like Ginastera’s, was pleasant enough, but forgettable.  The real highlight here was the marimba as a showcase.  I have never really thought about the marimba before, so this provided an opportunity to consider it.  I suppose I never realized just how large a marimba is, but it needs to be played standing up to allow the marimbist to get from end to end.  It is also played using four mallets, which takes quite some skill for the average two-handed human being.  Tonight’s soloist, a young Mexican Saúl Medina, was up to the challenge.  In fact, when the piece ended, he treated us to a solo encore, which required far more skill than the concerto solos.  Using the one huge marimba and four mallets at a time, he managed to fill the entire Tschaikowsky Hall with sound, as his feet danced behind the instrument.

The Finnish part of the concert came after the intermission, with the First Symphony by Sibelius.  Diemecke seemed to want to draw a connection between Sibelius and the Argentinian music by highlighting the syncopated lines, and especially the pizzicato sections.  He also gave enormous prominence to the harps, who of course always pluck their instruments.  I cannot think I have ever heard harps highlighted so prominently except outside Valhalla.  On the whole this did not work.  Sibelius’ music had no Latin antecedents, much less connections to Argentinian works composed after his death.  But the formidable Finn’s frosty fatalism overcame the frivolous faff.  Diemecke’s tendency to compartmentalize his music did allow for a finer understanding of the architecture of this symphony, in many ways the most Brucknerian of Sibelius’ symphonic works, with its stops, pivots, and soaring chorales.  And here Diemecke allowed the orchestra, which sounded in good health, to shine.

After the applause, Diemecke made an announcement in which he thanked the Russian public for supporting classical music, without which there was no reason to live.  Indeed, this may be the one thing the Russians do well.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus (St. Petersburg), Tschaikowsky Hall (Moscow)

Kruglikov, Verdi

Tonight’s special concert of Verdi’Requiem with the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev was for the benefit of victims of the disaster in Japan.

This was an extremely dramatic operatic reading of the Requiem.  This piece is already rather operatic, but tonight it was so expressive that the Mariinsky almost acted it out.  The Tschaikowsky Hall was absolutely packed, standing room only, but the orchestra’s sound managed to fill the hall.  I suppose that since they are used to playing in an orchestra pit, they know how to project up and out.  What I liked about this performance, however, was the way in which Gergiev drew out the woodwinds, who have some fascinating and dramatic parts that often get obscured by the strings and brass.  Tonight, I could clearly hear these interior lines.

The soloists all came from the Mariinsky roster.  Of them, only Olga Borodina (alto) is internationally known.  The other three were the sort of relatively young singers that Gergiev likes to showcase.  In terms of drama, stage presence, and beauty of voice, they all matched up to Borodina, particularly Viktoriya Yastrebova (soprano) and Ildar Abdrazakov (bass).  The fourth soloist, Sergey Semishkur (tenor) had a very beautiful voice, but came from the Russian school of dramatic tenors that I don’t personally like.  In Russia, dramatic tenors tend to have lighter (although not weaker) voices that tend towards the counter-tenor range rather than with supportive lower registers like European dramatic tenors.  This is purely a stylistic issue, and he certainly sang beautifully and dramatically.  All four easily projected over the orchestra and chorus.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Mourning Music by Feliks Kruglikov, a Russian who defected to the US in 1979 and became Zubin Mehta’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic.  The piece was sort of post-Schostakowitschian, although it did not really say anything.  Not unpleasant, just uninteresting: had Schostakowitsch lived longer, he would have had something to say.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Božić, Taneyev, Tschaikowsky

Since this was my last evening in Moscow for this month, I figured I might as well spend it at a concert.  The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed in the Tschaikowsky Concert Hall under the baton of Vladislav Chernushenko, with the Glinka Chorus of St. Petersburg highlighting the first two pieces.

The concert opened with a 1995 work by Serbian music professor and composer Svetislav BožićRecited Prayer for soloists, chorus, and string orchestra.  The work reminded me in part of the mystical cantata L’Atlantida by Manuel de Falla, setting polyphonic religious choral music on one hand together with strings playing long lines with periodic dissonance on the other. In this way, Božić managed to create a respectfully-traditional prayerful work with just enough updated modernity.

This piece led rather nicely to John of Damascus by Sergey Taneyev.  Taneyev was one of many typical Russian 19th Century eccentric artists.  A talented pianist and composer at the Moscow Conservatory, he decided he would not write any proper compositions for public consumption until he had completed academic exercises using every conceivable polyphonic combination – these exercises later served him well when he became a professor of counterpoint at the conservatory and tormented his students with them.  John of Damascus was his opus #1, finally written when he was twenty-eight, and which he saw as a short “Russian Requiem.”  Taneyev was an admirer of Tschaikowsky, but had a low opinion of the Russian nationalist “Mighty Handful,” so while typically Russian, this work exhibited a somewhat different take on “Russian” music than what grew out of the nationalist camp.  The choral music had its roots firmly in Russian polyphonic church music, but the accompanying orchestration had the longer and clearer lines of Tschaikowsky rather than the darker and rawer music usually associated with Russia.

The first two pieces were very moving.  The Tschikowsky Fifth Symphony after the intermission was less so.  Chernushenko gave it a slow and deliberate reading – it can be one or the other, but to do both is less convincing.  At this speed, he needed to draw out the lines more, but did not.  His technique appears to work better for choral music, but when put in front of an orchestra without chorus, Erich Leinsdorf’s comments about choral conductors come to mind.  Chernushenko is indeed a choral conductor from St. Petersburg.  He is also the long-time (1979-2002) rector of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  The chorus which sang the first two works, the Glinka Chorus of St. Petersburg, is his baby, and responded well to him.  The orchestra not as much.

His conducting technique was clear, but he mostly made indications to the orchestra and then leaned back on a supporting bar behind the podium and let the orchestra play.  Thankfully, this orchestra (Vladimir Fedoseyev’s band) can play.  But Chernushenko could have drawn out more emotion or at least interpretation.  I also found the seating arrangement he used rather peculiar: he reversed the strings, so that the second violins, celli, and basses sat on the left and the first violins and viole on the right.  When the wind instruments joined for the second two pieces, he did not reverse their seating, but also did not sit them in a customary arrangement: he put the bassoons and the trombones in the center and arrayed the treble-clef instruments around them – except for the horns, which he had sit with the viole. I did not understand what he intended to accomplish with this seating arrangement.

Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

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.

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Mahler

The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under Pavel Kogan gave an excellent reading of Mahler’s 9th this evening in the Tschaikowsky Hall.

Kogan paired the symphony with Schubert’s 4th (the “Tragic”), presumably to demonstrate Mahler’s classical antecedents.  The Schubert was workmanlike, but given the manner in which Kogan shaped the Mahler, the pairing came across as odd.  Mahler’s 9th, while tying up elements of his own life, is musically-speaking not a backwards-looking symphony but instead looks forward to a musical language that Schostakowitsch would develop.  Nowhere was this more clear than in the two outer movements, where Kogan drew out sonorities that clearly provided a preview for Schostakowitsch.  The two outer movements bracketed the grotesque dances that make up the inner movements.  There may be a lesson in those two inner movements, but the lesson I took away from tonight’s performance was from the frame: this symphony does not represent the triumph of the human soul over death, which cannot be defeated, but rather the triumph of the human soul over life, which must be defeated.

Now that’s a philosophical performance.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


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.

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.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Martinů, Dvořak

It may surprise people that the main reason I attended tonight’s concert of the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra in the Tschaikowsky Hall came from a desire to hear some works by Bohuslav Martinů, since his music does not receive much play.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, this orchestra was known as the Large Symphony Orchestra of the Soviet Radio.  On the podium tonight was Gintaras Rinkevičius, a Soviet-trained Lithuanian, whom my mother might describe as a “tall glass of water.”  In fact, he should not have conducted from a podium: in order to remain in the sight-lines of the orchestra, he had to hunch over rather severely; whenever he forgot to hunch, I think the orchestra members may have strained their necks looking up for his cues.  However, he had a clear technique and abundant energy.

The first half of the concert contained three works by Martinů composed in 1932-33, which made a clear progression.  The Serenade #2 for Strings opened the concert, and in it Martinů used an eighteenth-century classical style with just a hint of update.  The next work, the Serenade #3 for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings was also remarkably classical in form (although in only two self-contained movements) but had sufficient dissonance to give it a mean edge and useful contrasts.  The third work in the progression, the Concerto for Trio and String Orchestra was clearly a child of the twentieth century, with the competing tonal but dissonant lines, often performed by the trio, leading naturally to soaring harmonic chorales in the orchestra.

After the intermission came the more-known Symphony #8 by Antonín Dvořák.  The orchestra sounded great, and Rinkevičius certainly drew out the energy of the piece, but in his efforts to keep it crisp he may have produced technique that came across as too abrupt, almost starting-and-stopping between each phrase.

The concert tonight was surprisingly crowded, although I think because they let all the little old ladies out of the nursing home.  They clapped between every movement (audiences in Moscow usually know better).  And they hacked out several lungs during the first half of the concert, so that I think many of them did not survive until the second half, when many seats were suddenly vacant and the coughing stopped.  Either that or the sick old ladies were all Martinů fans who hate Dvořák.

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.

New Russia Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Bloch, Bruch, Mahler

Back to the Tschaikowsky Hall for a concert of the “New Russia” Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the somewhat eccentric Estonian violinist Andres Mustonen, who may have just walked in from an artist colony or homeless shelter somewhere.  He appeared wearing oversized black rags which looked like he had found them balled up at the bottom of a larger housemate’s laundry basket.  To add a splash of color, or maybe to cover a large stain, he seemed to have ripped the corner off a crimson-and-black patterned tasseled curtain and tied it around his neck like a scarf.  What is left of his long mop of hair he attached to his head using an oversized hair clip strategically placed over his large bald spot.

As he conducted, Mustonen leapt all over the podium, and sometimes off of it, reaching over the music stands of the first row strings to pound out a point.  If he could have safely jumped into the back row of the orchestra, he might have done the same for them.  As an interpretive style, he muscled his way through the music in the program.  He did, however, have an obviously warm relationship with this group, all hugs and smiles, and certainly brought the musicianship out of them.

The concert advertisements, and even the printed program, indicated the concert would begin with Wagner’s Faust Overture.  Obviously, someone lost that wager, since they never performed the work at all.  Instead, we skipped ahead to Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo.  This is an eccentric work I have heard of but not previously heard, and I am not sure that giving an eccentric work an eccentric reading helps in making it understandable.  The sober cello soloist, Nataliya Gutman, was herself a bit overwhelmed by Mustonen’s approach.  I may have to go hear this piece again some time.

Next came Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto.  Soloist Viktor Tretyakov’s reading worked better with Mustonen’s interpretation (although Tretyakov, in his crisp white tie and tails, made quite a visual contrast with Mustonen).  Unfortunately, this meant that the softer passages lacked nuance.  Sounded good from a pure musical perspective, but all together too heavy.

However, Mustonen’s approach worked best for the final work: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, producing a performance of overwhelmingly neurotic proportions.  Not only did the louder and faster passages rage, but even the softer and slower passages were frenetic, in the way that a sedated psychiatric patient’s mind races inside a mellow and restrained body, plotting out what he will do when the medication wears off and he will be set free from the rubber room at the asylum.  The orchestra was up to the challenge.  Some of the audience was not, and gradually started walking out throughout the entire symphony.  Those of us who stayed to the end gave a thundering applause, and I certainly hoped Mustonen and the orchestra would treat us to an encore of another entire Mahler symphony of their choice.  No such luck.

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.