Moscow State Symphony Offers Feast of Superb Performances

18/05/2016

Shostakovich, Prokofiev: Noriko Ogawa (piano), Moscow State Symphony Orchestra / Pavel Kogan (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 17.5.2016. (PCG)

ProkofievRussian Overture, Op.72; Piano Concerto No 3 in C, Op.26
Shostakovich – Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op.47

In the past I have commented on several occasions about the difficulties that visiting orchestras in the St David’s Hall International Seasons clearly have in adjusting to the acoustic of the venue. This arises in particular from the fact that performers on one side of the stage can frequently experience sheer difficulty in hearing what is happening on the other side, a problem particularly acute in the choir stalls at the back but also very noticeable on the platform itself. This can lead to a certain tentative approach, and certainly is the cause of failures in ensemble and balance which are unfortunately all too noticeable. In general, orchestras can find means to overcome this (singers can find it more difficult), but it requires a unanimity of approach through rehearsals. Orchestras who regularly perform here, such as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales or the Philharmonia, seem to have got the measure of the sound, but orchestras from abroad in particular can find themselves at something of a loss.

All of which is to preface the observation here that the performance of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra generally seemed to make light of the difficulties involved. There was a clear sense that the musicians knew these scores so well that they were able to deliver superb readings without any suspicion of tentative approach or hesitation. This was true even in the face of Prokofiev’s perversely unstable tempo indications at the start of the Russian Overture – an initial fast speed contradicted almost immediately by a slower one before it has had time to establish itself – but then the piece itself is more noteworthy for noise than musical substance. It was however superbly played, the musicians switching from one tempo to the next with absolute assurance and the violins clearly audible in their busy figurations as well as poised in the most stratospherically high-flying passages.

They were equally impressive in their accompaniment to Noriko Ogawa in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, where the balance between soloist and orchestra was excellent. Indeed this was one of those performances which simply defied any adverse criticism, and the fiendish difficulties of the solo part were overcome with deceptive ease. Surely these artists must commit the concerto to record; one would hate to think that a performance of this quality could be lost for ever.

After the interval we were given a similarly scintillating performance of Shostakovich’s “reply to just criticism” which hovered on a fine line between a sense of straightforward rejoicing and the forced jollity which the composer is supposed to have intended (although how one can identify the difference is surely a matter of individual taste). Peter Reynolds’s informative programme note seemed to come down firmly on the side of ‘revisionist’ interpretation deriving from Solomon Volkov’s Testimony; and the quotation in the final movement of Shostakovich’s bitter Pushkin setting Rebirth (about a barbarian who paints over a masterpiece) would certainly seem to confirm scepticism about the genuine nature of the symphonic ‘reply’ to Stalin’s onslaught on Shostakovich’s music. Again there was absolutely nothing to criticise in the performance itself except a momentary lapse in balance at the end of the first movement where the trumpet underpinning of the final celesta gestures was more of a healthy mezzo-forte than Shostakovich’s request for pianissimo.On the other hand the playing of the violins, divided into three parts, during the slow movement had a rapt sense of stillness that reduced the audience to stunned concentration with even the coughers silenced.

I have complained also in the past about the bad habit of conductors playing encores without telling the audiences what it is they are going to hear, and once again this was the case here. But the encore was well chosen, Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot – which not only formed a quirky pendant to the symphony, but also served to illustrate the sort of thing in the composer’s music to which Stalin took such exception. My enjoyment however was spoiled by a flurried conversation in the row behind me between a number of people who were busily discussing precisely what it was they were hearing. Performers really should consider this issue, which could so easily be rectified; I was told last year by the hall’s management that they would ask for such announcements to be made, but their request seems to have been overlooked. Pavel Kogan, as throughout, was superb in his response to the music, although again there was a problem of balance with the celesta whose initial statement of Youman’s chorus Tea for two was obscured by the delicate harp accompaniment.

The audience was disappointingly thin – the hall cannot have been much more than half full – but those present were given a real feast of superb performances. These are the sort of readings that one would welcome on CD, and indeed in the Shostakovich symphony Kogan showed a real sense of onward propulsion that completely obviated any suspicion that the music was hanging fire at any point.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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