Tchaikovsky from the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra

Tchaikovsky: Dinara Alieva (soprano), Andrei Grigoriev (baritone), Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra, Vassily Sinaisky (conductor). Cadogan Hall, 12.5.2011 (MB)

Eugene Onegin (extracts)

The Nutcracker (extracts)

Extracts from both Eugene Onegin and The Nutcracker did not make for an ultimately satisfying programme. One missed much of what was not there, though by the same token one could treat the concert as something of a calling card. We did, however, hear the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra, in the music of a composer to whom it could hardly stand closer, on magnificent form, under the baton of a very fine, arguably underrated, conductor, Vassily Sinaisky.

The programme was altered somewhat from that advertised, presumably as a consequence of the replacement of an ailing Alexander Lazarev by Sinaisky. (That, however, still begged a few questions, since the replaced music is certainly in Sinaisky’s repertoire.) It was, perhaps, no great loss to manage without the overture to Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, recently performed in full by the Royal Opera (click here). To have an all-Tchaikovsky programme probably made more sense too, though it sounded a little odd to hear the Introduction to Eugene Onegin by itself, without leading into anything. Nevertheless, it displayed from the very first bar a wonderfully rich, indubitably Russian, string tone, horns and woodwind proving just as impressive. It was full of incipient drama, Sinaisky imparting a flexibility of phrasing that could only really be described as ‘vocal’ in quality. The Letter Scene followed; again, the orchestra was on excellent form indeed: one could almost imagine oneself in the theatre, especially once the harps began to weave their magic. Dinara Alieva made a fine Tatiana, with a properly Russian sound yet so verbally acute that her performance conveyed the words’ meaning, even if one had no Russian to speak of. The denouement was moving, even out of context. Onegin’s aria from the following scene was to be enjoyed more for the orchestral than the vocal contribution; Andrei Grigoriev sounded earnest but too wobbly, and proved dramatically wooden throughout. The Polonaise had an irresistible swagger; it may be unbearably clichéd to say so, but it really did sound as if the orchestra had the music in its blood. There was gorgeous woodwind detail to be heard and cello tone of a depth one rarely hears. What a pity that a good – or rather bad – part of the audience applauded before the music had even finished. Finally came the closing duet between Tatiana and Onegin. Orchestral sadness, somewhere between melancholy and tragedy, set the scene perfectly, followed by real frustration preparing the way for Alieva’s entry. Once again, one marvelled at the flexibility Sinaisky provided, of which his soprano took full advantage. However, the contrast between the two singers was even more glaring than when they had been singing separately. It is also only fair to say that the Letter Scene has the unfortunate consequence of overshadowing subsequent music still more when one hears excerpts rather than the rest of the opera in full.

The Nutcracker excerpts were somewhat confusing. What we heard was not the advertised Evgeny Mravinsky ‘Suite’, itself a rather odd selection, so it was not always clear precisely what was being heard. There was much to enjoy, however, though the omissions were surprising. Orchestral sound was once again enchanting – as of course it must be in this music, and there was again very much a sense of the theatre, not least in the expectancy engendered by the departure of the guests. At times, a more modernistic sound was also elicited there by Sinaisky with respect to orchestral detail, which put me in mind of Der Rosenkavalier and of course presages ballets such as Petrushka too. One really heard – and almost saw – the Christmas tree grow, and the waltz of the snowflakes had just the right sense of Vienna transposed to Russian soil. Cellos sang with echt -national melancholy, whilst the string sound as a whole was such that one could imagine Mravinsky himself would have been pleased. The second-act pas de deux, advertised in the programme, was not part of what we heard, but its Tarantella – not, surprisingly, the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy – received an energetic, fiery reading as an encore.

Mark Berry