An Impressive Birmingham Debut by Mikhail Tatarnikov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Dohnányi, Rachmaninov, Peter Donohoe (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mikhail Tatarnikov (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 12.3.2014 (JQ)

Mussorgsky – A Night on the Bare Mountain
Dohnányi – Variations on a Nursery Tune, Op, 25
Rachmaninov – Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op. 27


The young Russian conductor, Mikhail Tatarnikov is music director and principal conductor of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg. I’m not sure how old he is but judging by his appearance and the fact that he graduated from the St. Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire in 2003 I would guess he’s in his early thirties. Almost exactly a year ago he made what I believe was his British debut, standing in at short notice for Neeme Järvi with the RNSO in Edinburgh and in the process making a favourable impression on  my colleague, Simon Thompson (review). This concert marked his CBSO debut.

He opened with A Night on the Bare Mountain in the Rimsky version. Given Tatarnikov’s operatic pedigree I felt this performance fell somewhat short of expectations. The music-making was efficient but I sensed, perhaps wrongly, that the CBSO were playing slightly within themselves; the performance wasn’t sufficiently abandoned or scary. The playing was colourful but I’ve heard other readings that have had more bite to them. Perhaps if the tempo had been just a notch quicker it might have helped. As it was, the hairs on the back of my neck were not raised. The quiet closing pages were done well. Here Tatarnikov drew some poetic, atmospheric playing from the orchestra, with notable solo contributions from flautist, Ahran Kim and clarinettist, James Burke.

 If Mikhail Tatarnikov is a newcomer to Symphony Hall, Peter Donohoe most certainly is not: he’s a very familiar figure and a welcome, indeed honoured guest. Before this performance I came upon two pieces of information that surprised me. The first is that I gather Peter Donohoe has mentioned recently on social media that he hasn’t played the Dohnányi Variations on a Nursery Tune since the 1980s; the second was the revelation in the programme that the CBSO hasn’t played the work since 1979. Both these facts surprise me greatly. Why haven’t the CBSO programmed this work for some 35 years? It’s an attractive, colourful and inventive piece which, as this performance proved, goes down well with audiences. If no-one has asked Peter Donohoe to play it for so long that’s a big surprise for the work requires a soloist of no little virtuosity and wit: it’s tailor-made for him.

 As I’d hoped and expected Donohoe was an ideal soloist. Tatarnikov set the scene well with a suitably dramatic and portentous unfolding of the big Introduction. The moment when the full orchestra breaks off and the soloist plays the Twinkle, twinkle, little star theme like a child’s five-finger exercise is still one of the best musical jokes, no matter how often one has heard it and it raised an audible laugh from the audience on this occasion. Having got that out of the way Donohoe proceeded to have fun! He brought virtuosity and humour to the performance and the orchestra backed him up splendidly with some razor-sharp playing. Among the moments that particularly stood out for me was the seventh variation, the waltz. If I remember correctly from when I took part in a performance many years ago, this variation is marked mit Schwung (‘with dash’); that’s how it came across here, with Tatarnikov getting the orchestra to inflect the waltz with fine sweep and vigour, matched by Donohoe. The enterprising colours of Dohnányi’s orchestration in the ninth variation – including growling bassoons and tinkling xylophone – were vividly achieved. The great passacaglia (Variation 10) was built impressively and then the concluding fugato was a delightful romp – not for the first time I was put in mind of Tom and Jerry by this music. Just before the end I really enjoyed the delightfully droll bassoon playing of Julian Roberts. This was a splendid and thoroughly enjoyable performance of this sparkling work: I hope we won’t have to wait 35 years to hear it again in Birmingham.

 Some eighteen months ago in this same hall I attended one of the finest performances of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony that I’ve ever heard (review). That was by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly. If this CBSO performance didn’t quite match that achievement it was still a very good one and the orchestra played the symphony superbly.

 Tatarnikov clearly had the measure of the work, much of which he shaped impressively. I was interested to note one slight detail of his conducting technique – which was dynamic and admirably clear throughout the evening. He used a baton during the expressive introduction to the first movement of the symphony and during the slow movement, as he had throughout the first half of the programme, but elsewhere in the symphony he dispensed with the stick. In the first movement introduction Tatarnikov brought out the yearning, brooding nature of the music at the start but ensured that over time the music opened up and glowed: the expressive lines were allowed to flow freely. The allegro moderato was played with purpose. There was urgency in the interpretation and playing and overall this was welcome though occasionally I wondered if Tatarnikov could have allowed himself to be a bit more expansive. However, if his desire was to avoid any suspicion of over-indulgence I can understand that. There was no shortage of power in the playing when required but, equally, there was no lack of refinement. The exposition repeat was omitted.

 The pace for the scherzo was indeed Allegro molto. The main impression was of vigour and athleticism, though the big swooning melody – so typical of the composer – which soon interrupts the headlong rush of the scherzo material was expressively moulded. James Burke gave a splendid rendition of that clarinet melody at the start of the Adagio. Tatarnikov’s way with the music seemed to achieve a good balance between ardour and flow although, as in the first movement, I felt that perhaps he could have allowed himself a touch more expansiveness. Oddly, I thought the pacing of the second part of the movement after the general pause, was completely successful. I say ‘oddly’ because I don’t think the basic pulse was different to the speed previously adopted; perhaps I’d become properly immersed in the reading by then. The main climax of the movement was splendidly delivered.

 The finale was very exciting. The fast music was strongly rhythmical and even when Rachmaninov indulged in moments of trademark nostalgia and swooning melody Tatarnikov kept the underlying urgency going. There was an undeniable sweep to the performance and the music was often exultant. When the last climax of the movement arrived Tatarnikov thrust it home in such a way that one sensed that he’d had his eye on this moment ever since beginning his journey through the symphony some 55 minutes earlier.

 This was an impressive CBSO debut by Mikhail Tatarnikov. I fancy we’ll be seeing him again in Birmingham before too long.

John Quinn