Carefully Nuanced Sheherazade from Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov: Norika Ogawa (piano), Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio, Denis Lotoev (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 16.10.2013 (PCG)

Rachmaninov – Vocalise, Op.34/14
Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op.30
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade, Op.35


It was perhaps unfortunate that for their visit to Cardiff the Moscow radio orchestra had decided to feature Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, since we had already had a performance of the work only six months ago in this same hall (which I also reviewed for Seen and Heard on 12 April, the last time I heard a piano concerto at the venue). One would have hoped that those responsible for scheduling the International Season at St David’s Hall might have suggested to the promoters that another Rachmaninov concerto could have profitably been substituted; as it was, the hall was far from full and it may well be that potential patrons had decided they did not need to hear this particular concerto again quite so soon.

They would have been mistaken, because this performance by Noriko Ogawa was a complete contrast to that given by Llŷr Williams earlier this year. Where Williams had sought to give the concerto a classically and subtly shaped interpretation rather than a simple barn-stormer, at the loss in the initial stages of some sense of dramatic impulse, Ogawa here charged at the score with fire and precision from the very outset but without sacrificing expressiveness. Where this performance failed to match that by Williams was in the balance between soloist and orchestra. I suspect that the Moscow players were unfamiliar with the admittedly quirky acoustic of the hall, but much of the woodwind detail in particular was muffled, while the strings with their rich sonority tended to overpower the soloist in passages such as the climax preceding the cadenza. Immediately after Ogawa’s coruscating traversal of that cadenza, the flute solo for instance failed to come across properly from where the player was situated not far behind the raised lid of the piano. In the finale Ogawa set a spanking pace, which robbed her of the chance to achieve clear articulation in the repeated triplet figures which precede the accented notes; and indeed the brass also had problems when they had to repeat the motif. On the other hand, during the closing pages Ogawa challenged the orchestra with superhuman smashing chords which were most exciting.

Similar problems of orchestral balance had afflicted the opening performance of the Rachmaninov Vocalise, which Lotoev (conducting throughout without a baton) milked for every last ounce of sentiment with carefully calculated rubatos which never left the music alone for an instant with seemingly no two consecutive bars of the same duration. The result was very effective, but left one with the uneasy feeling that less might have been more in this delicate piece.

For the Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade after the interval, the number of strings was increased still further; but with the piano lid no longer acting as a baffle between the audience and the players the woodwind came across with far more character, and the smooth Russian horns in particular came across with great distinction. Earlier this year, when reviewing Temirkanov’s CD of the work, I remarked that performances of this popular score seem to have become a comparative rarity in the concert hall in recent years, and it was good to hear it in a concert acoustic especially in a performance as carefully nuanced as this one. Rather startlingly Lotoev made no break between the first and second movements, which only served to illustrate Rimsky-Korsakov’s persistent and almost monothematic use during these movements of his principal theme, depicting at various times Shahriar, Sinbad and the Kalendar Prince. Lotoev took the third movement at quite a fast speed, which avoided the sense of languor which can sometimes afflict the music but made it difficult to achieve contrast in the faster middle section. This section also highlighted a further problem of balance, with the player of the tambourine thrust forward by the stage placing to a position in front of the horns and practically within the viola section, almost giving him a solo role rather than a purely colouristic one. In the final movement one marvelled once again at the manner in which Rimsky-Korsakov managed to recycle material from the earlier movements without any suspicion of staleness, thanks largely to his superb orchestral skills. And the re-emergence of the sea music had all the dramatic impact which it deserved – a thrilling moment. Congratulations also to Mikhail Shestakov, who played the substantial solo violin passages from the leader’s desk with great distinction and beautifully poised tone in the stratospheric final pages.

As an encore, the Tchaikovsky orchestra turned to their namesake for the ‘Mother Gigonne’ movement from the Nutcracker ballet – I think, because no announcement was made to introduce the music, and the very forward balance given to all the percussion almost served to obliterate the melodic material in the orchestra with the castanets in particular ridiculously prominent. Despite the problems with orchestral disposition on what seemed to be a very over-crowded stage, it was good to see the violins split left and right across the front which was a positive advantage in parts of the Rimsky-Korsakov where the composer clearly expected antiphonal effects.

Paul Corfield Godfrey