Raw, Visceral Playing from the Moscow Philharmonic In Edinburgh
Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky: Nikita Boriso-Glebsky (violin), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Simonov (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 05.10.2011 (SRT)
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
It’s often said nowadays that the distinctive national flavour of orchestras has died away in the 21st Century. It’s true that these days the RSNO can play French music as well as they do in Toulouse, and that many of the great central European orchestras are hard to tell apart, but the Russians have escaped this default homogeneity and they retain an utterly unique sound and style. Tonight’s concert couldn’t have been given by any orchestra west of Pskov.
Right from the opening of Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets, you could tell that the sound of the Moscow Philharmonic is something different. They play with sophistication and precision, but their priority is not refinement or panache: instead their emphasis is on raw, visceral engagement with the power of the music they are playing. They do not trade in finesse, but in primal energy. As part of that they tend to trade in extremes: the animalistic pounding that opened the Romeo and Juliet excerpts was proof of that, and even when they shaded down their tone for the later dances this was very clearly Verona seen through Russian eyes. Some might call this sound quality raw, and the brass in particular have an almost serrated roughness to their edge; but it works! So what if the trumpet for the opening of Mussorgsky’s Promenade was a touch out of tune? The cumulative effect was so great as to be awesome. I’ve never heard the climax of The Great Gate of Kiev sound so overwhelming, pulling out a new stop every time I felt the orchestra had reached their maximum. Elsewhere, it’s true, it wasn’t always as successful: the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks tended to lumber and Baba Yaga’s hut, the one moment where you would expect the orchestra to go over the top, seemed curiously underpowered to my ears. But the swagger and strength of Gnomus and Bydlo made up for it, and you can forgive a lot when you hear the final pages of The Great Gate played with such hoary, brazen splendour.
This all-or-nothing approach didn’t suit the classical refinement of Tchaikovsky quite so well, but the big orchestral tuttis went with a swing and, at times, something of a sly wink. Soloist Nikita Boriso-Glebsky is a showman to his fingertips, but I couldn’t really imagine him playing this piece with anything other than a Russian orchestra, so distinctive is his style. He made the violin sing with throbbing passion at the lower end of its register, though could tend to shrillness at the top and was occasionally stretched in the quicker passages. Still, his reading was all of a piece with Simonov’s direction. More of an actor than a conductor. His tempi tended towards the slower side, but he directed his orchestra with a smile or a grimace rather than a firm beat: his hands barely every marked time, but tended instead to caress a phrase or change an expression. This was a unique evening, and I wouldn’t always want to hear this music performed in this way, but as an unrepeatable experience it will stick in my memory for a long time.