Douglas and Moscow Philharmonic Do Justice to Youthful Rachmaninov Works

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov), Rachmaninov: Barry Douglas (piano), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Simonov (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 18.10.2011 (MC)

Mussorgsky (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov): Night on the Bare Mountain (1867 arranged 1881)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 (1892)
Rachmaninov: Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13 (1895)

Delays from awful traffic congestion in the area caused by Manchester City’s Champions League fixture must have made for a stressful arrival at the Bridgwater Hall by the Moscow Philharmonic. A considerable number of the audience also missed the opening score from Mussorgsky. Clearly the Moscow Philharmonic’s final preparations must have been affected however it didn’t seem to show in their playing which was quite outstanding.

From my experience of hearing both the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in the last year, touring Russian orchestras don’t disappoint. Tonight at the Bridgwater Hall the talented Moscow Symphony Orchestra elected to play works by Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov which is music that runs through their veins.

Inspired by a scene of a Witches’ Sabbath from Gogol’s folk tale St. John’s Eve, Mussorgsky’s incomplete score to Night on the Bare Mountain was arranged into a fantasy for orchestra by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov. In this wonderful orchestral showpiece Simonov’s orchestra delivered Slavic fervour without forgoing any hint of care and self-discipline. Right from the opening bars the burnished Moscow strings scurried, tantalised and thrilled with glorious expression.

Either side of the interval were two scores from the young Rachmaninov. First the infrequently played Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 completed when the composer was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Barry Douglas proved to be an inspired choice as soloist dazzling his way through the score’s delightful if uneven writing. Douglas responded to Rachmaninov’s lyricism with great warmth providing cleanly articulated playing of considerable gusto. Especially poetic was the charming restraint of the Larghetto that sounded like a Chopin nocturne. Despite such a fine performance neither soloist, conductor nor the orchestral players could save this appealing and often exhilarating work from its distinct lack of melodic memorability.

Completed in his twenty-second year Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1 in D minor got off to the worst possible start at its première in St. Petersburg as the conductor Glazunov was thought to be intoxicated. A tormented Rachmaninov washed his hands of the work which was only rediscovered at the Moscow Conservatory after his death. Showing his mettle musical director Yuri Simonov imbued a quiet confidence directing his charges with clarity and precision. It is impossible to mention all the highlights of this Moscow Philharmonic performance such was the quality they displayed. Inspiring and energising his players in the opening movement Simonov demanded and received a potent sense of storm and conflict. Simonov obtained much forward momentum in the Scherzo darkly hued with an unsettling tension. Surely a depiction of a love affair, this Larghetto revealed an intense and complicated relationship with shades of unhappiness. The volume was powerful in the final movement with the orchestra biting hard into the rhythmic march theme. Simonov increased the pace to near fever pitch. In the ensuing calm passage I loved the contributions from the talented oboe and clarinet principals. The gong announced a dramatic shift with the music becoming increasingly weighty and tension filled. At one point the timbre of the eight Moscow cellos sounded so deep and mellow the effect was astonishing and the woodwind could have easily depicted nature sounds from Siberian forest. How the deep brass bit and brayed and the percussion thundered to stunning effect!

This Bridgwater International Concert Series maintains an elevated standard of performance with numerous mouth watering concerts yet to come this season. I look forward especially to the visit of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic in April 2012.

Michael Cookson