Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio

(I must write this while it’s still hot!)

The Cadogan Hall is not the ideal place for a big orchestra.  The very features that make it ideal for chamber music and small orchestras – clear acoustic, short resonance time, intimate space – mean that a big orchestra is squashed into too small a platform area, and its sound becomes blarey and unblending, overloading the acoustics of the hall and the ears of the audience.  (I know, I’ve played there!)  So it wasn’t perhaps possible to form a totally fair assessment of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio – formerly known as the (very famous) Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, under such chief conductors as Alexander Gauk and Gennady Rozhdestvensky – playing there tonight as part of the Zurich International Concert Series.

They started with Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 – a terrific, in-your-face Russian symphony with great tunes and no pretensions to be anything other than what it is.  I was hoping to hear a recognisably ‘Moscow’ sound – confirming my thoughts about orchestras from different local traditions – but the wobbly horn just sounded tentative, and the woodwind were pale and under-characterised (and pretty painfully out of tune at times).  And there were some decidedly hesitant entries in places.  What was terrific, though, was the string sound – big, creamy, well-drilled, very precise, and underlaid by a solid line of double basses (eight of them) stretched out across the back of the platform in the good old-fashioned way.

Then things looked up, with Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  (‘What, that old thing?’)  As the conductor (the dapper, diminutive but evidently effective Vladimir Fedoseyev) raised his baton, the orchestra almost audibly relaxed, as if to say ‘This is OUR music…’ (which didn’t prevent a few inexcusable wrong entries – perhaps the orchestra has been travelling too much, or they all had hangovers?).  But the real surprise, and the star of the evening, was pianist Denis Matsuev (born in Siberia in 1975).  As he began, I thought at first ‘note-perfect precision, loud bright tone, tendency to rush the difficult bits – another boring Russian robot infant prodigy…’ – but no, soon came beautiful quiet pianissimos, some witty cross-hand gestures and a sly smile.  All with fantastic technique and total control:  this boy knows what he is about!  I don’t think I have ever really heard this piece properly before, or been made to listen to it so intently – I don’t think I had realised quite what a tricksy, subversive piece it is (right from the ‘let’s leave out the tune’ opening – even if he did pinch that idea from Beethoven).  And rarely before had I thought of Rachmaninov and Gershwin as American brothers under the skin. 

Matsuev’s ending was brilliant.

Well, that was a revelation.  After the interval came Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – always a favourite of mine.  Again this was ‘their music’, and this time oboe and bassoon solos were rich and colourful (different players:  I wonder if they had kept back the ‘A team’ for the second half?).  Great solo violin too.  Glorious!  An absolute treat.

Two encores:  a very silly Spanish Dance (Nutcracker?), too fast and with lots of percussion;  then – a surprise – Elgar’s Nimrod (from the Enigma Variations).  I felt very touched.

A pretty full house too:  who were they all?  The Russian mafia out in force, I guess… (no, I know, I mean the cream of Russian expat society in London).  Thanks for the tickets, Lisa!  But I didn’t see the Man in Black from the Proms, nor any owners of football clubs that I recognised?  Anyway a great time was had by all – and pianist Denis Matsuev is definitely someone to watch out for.

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