Edinburgh Festival (13): A Tidal Wave of Sound from Russian National Orchestra

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Edinburgh Festival 13 Rachmaninov, Glazunov: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev (conductor), Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (13), Usher Hall, 19.08.2013 (SRT)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2
Glazunov: The Seasons

I’ve written before that Russian orchestras still have a particularly distinctive sound and this evening’s performance confirmed me in that view. However, unlike the Moscow Philharmonic, the Russian National Orchestra don’t play with rawness – their technique is impeccable and extremely impressive: instead they create a particularly dark, chocolaty sound that has the ability to capture the listener in its extraordinary sweep. The unison string sound at the opening of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, for example, was like a tidal wave sweeping off the stage, the polar opposite of the airy open-ness that had been cultivated by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe during the previous evenings. That richness carried on, with the violins providing a melody to die for at the end of the slow movement. Perhaps the horn playing lacked that singing quality during their big moment at the end of the first movement, but I could put up with that for such a warm bath of string tone.

Nikolai Lugansky, a perennial Edinburgh favourite, is an understated, even modest force at the keyboard, but that doesn’t reduce the impact of his playing, which is staggering. The big chords sound easy under his fingers, but his playing was almost hymn-like in the slow movement. Both he and Pletnev are artists who provide a huge impact without any ostentation or showiness, something Yannick Nézet-Séguin could learn a lot from.

After the interval, Pletnev had to do little but step back and allow each section of his orchestra to take us on a tour through the Glazunov’s Seasons. This score is a real feast of melody and a riot of orchestration, be it the frequent big string themes (that tone again!) or the many moments where an individual instrument gets its moment in the sun, be it the violas in the Winter music, or the smorgasbord of wind colour for the final Petit Adagio. Pletnev directed the whole thing with remarkable subtlety, but was happy to let rip during the famous Bacchanale in the Autumn scene, and the orchestra responded in kind. This was a real orchestral treat, and the packed hall gave it the ovation it deserved.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson