Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra visits Manchester

Tchaikovsky: Dinara Alieva (soprano), Andrei Grigoriev (baritone), Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Alexei Stepanov (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 04.05.2011 (MC)

Eugene Onegin – extracts from the opera

The Nutcracker Suite (arranged Mravinsky)

Long delays from awful traffic congestion in the area caused by Manchester United’s Champions League semi-final made for a stressful arrival at the Bridgwater Hall for the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. On account of ill health Alexander Lazerev was unable to conduct and was replaced at short notice by Alexei Stepanov. So it was certainly not the most auspicious of starts for the touring Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra from Moscow. Undoubtedly these unavoidable events must have impacted on their final preparations but it didn’t seem to affect their playing, which was quite outstanding.

No stranger to the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra Alexei Stepanov proved to be the perfect replacement having conducted them between 1977 to 2005 – in Eugene Onegin I noticed in their repertoire. The oldest symphony orchestra in Russia the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra certainly has the music of Tchaikovsky running through its veins. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was premièred in Moscow in 1879 at the Maly Theatre and staged a couple of years later at the Bolshoi Theatre.

Right from the opening bars of the orchestral introduction to Eugene Onegin the strength, unity and rich timbre of the Bolshoi strings was remarkable. This year I have heard the Berlin Philharmonic; Amsterdam Concertgebouw and London Symphony Orchestra in concert and nothing has compared to the glorious Bolshoi string sound. There is something special and enduring about the Russian tradition of string playing. Less than six months ago I heard the touring Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio play in Lancaster. Whilst not having the polish of the Bolshoi Orchestra the rich colourful timbre of their string sound was remarkable too. Tchaikovsky’s scores are a melodic delight with the orchestra revelling in the splendour of the Introduction; Polonaise and the Waltz of Eugene Onegin. It seems unfair to single out individual players from the talented woodwind section but the tone and phrasing of oboist Sergey Lysenko was quite exceptional and the playing of the principal flute also. For some reason after the interval I couldn’t see Lysenko in his place for The Nutcracker Suite.

As the heroine Tatyana the raven haired soprano, Dinara Alieva, dressed in a stunning black gown set the pulse racing with singing of emotional intensity and impressive stage presence. In the celebrated ‘letter scene’ the forthright and durable tones of the Azerbaijan born soprano filled every corner of the hall. As the scene progressed Alieva relaxed noticeably allowing her interpretive and performing insights of the role to become more apparent. There were no problems either for baritone Andrei Grigoriev playing the dashing hero Onegin set on breaking the heart of the besotted Tatyana. Grigoriev’s dark timbre is attractive without exhibiting the carrying strength of his partner. In the impassioned final scene Tatyana and Onegen’s duet of unrequited love and regret generated a remarkable frisson.

The orchestra expanded its forces significantly for The Nutcracker Suite one of the sweetest toothed scores in the repertoire. With its almost incessant torrent of rich melodies this ballet suite has rightly maintained a lasting popularity in the repertoire.

Yevgeny Mravinsky’s arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite which seemed rather short in duration disappointed by leaving out such veritable gems from the Divertissement as the Spanish; Arabian; Chinese and Russian dances, and the Dance of the Reed Pipes. A more satisfying programme for after the interval would have been the second act of The Nutcracker that I heard performed a few months ago with Vasily Petrenko conducting the Liverpool Phil. Imperturbable maestro Stepanov and the Bolshoi Orchestra excelled, providing a lavish feast of sound in music that they know so well with gleaming brass splendidly balanced; sumptuously passionate strings and exquisitely colourful woodwind. On this evidence who needs an orchestra to arrive off the coach with plenty of time in a relaxed frame of mind.


Michael Cookson