Russian Musicians Play Enjoyable Concert of Russian Masterpieces

United KingdomUnited KingdomTchaikovsky, Prokofiev: Natalia Lomeiko (violin), Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Polyansky (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 8.10.2014 (PCG)

Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D, Op.25 ‘Classical’
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D, Op.38
Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op.64


This concert got off to a slightly shaky start with the underpowered violins seeming to take time to find the measure of the hall’s admittedly quirky acoustics, but they soon recovered and gave a fizzing performance even though I was puzzled by the reduction in the number of players. Prokofiev devised his First Symphony on classical models (anticipating the later advent of neo-classicism), but I am not sure he would have expected anything less than a full-sized string section. The second movement was rather bland, with only the bassoons chugging away demonstrating much of the cheeky undertones of the music; the Gavotte had much more body, although here it was the oboe in the trio which was somewhat reticent. But by the time they reached the finale the orchestra had finally found form, giving a fizzing performance.

In the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto we seemed to be witnessing a dichotomy in approach between the soloist and conductor. The string section, now expanded to its full size, was urged by Polyansky to deliver their tuttis with plenty of body but he did not allow much room for expansion in the more overtly romantic passages. On the other hand Natalia Lomeiko showed a much greater willingness to linger, and she demonstrated plenty of life not only in her grittily pointed playing but also in her expressively felt delivery of the second subject. But when she led into the ‘big tune’ Polyansky seemed to pick up speed, and when the soloist was not playing the orchestra did convey a slight suspicion that they were on a well-rehearsed auto-pilot, with the conductor leaving them very much to their own devices. Again in the slow movement the soloist appeared to be more willing to linger and enjoy the music than did the conductor, although both entered fully into the spirit of the dancing finale. (On a slightly different topic, Peter Reynolds in his programme note regurgitated the infamous comments of Hanslick after the first performance that this was “music that stinks in the ear.”  Of course Hanslick could frequently be vindictive and simply wrong – his criticisms of Wagner, Bruckner and anyone else he regarded as belonging to their school well merit censure – but then one does sometimes wish that modern critics would stick their necks out rather more when reviewing contemporary music, rather than simply dismissing the works in question with faint praise or simple description.)

After the interval the orchestra gave us a strong performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a work which the composer himself initially regarded as a failure. Indeed I do sometimes feel that the over-use of the ‘fate’ motto theme in every movement can be over-mechanical (Dvořák managed that sort of thing so much better in his New World Symphony) with only the startling fortissimo appearance of the motto during the slow movement carrying the dramatic impact that the composer surely intended. Mind you, on its initial statement that motto theme was given very slowly by Polyansky, well below Tchaikovsky’s metronome mark and certainly not conforming to the tempo indication of Andante; when the main body of the movement started there was a decided leap in intensity and briskness of approach. Nikolay Lebedev delivered his horn solo at the start of the second movement superbly, a beautifully modulated rendition without any suspicion of the watery tone we used to expect from Russian players – this was something rather special. The third movement waltz was rather unbending, without much sense of Viennese lilt (if indeed that was what Tchaikovsky expected) and at the beginning of the finale the return of the ‘motto’ theme was augmented by an unmarked ritenuto. As the march led into the main body of the movement, the timpani roll almost totally drowned out the ferocious string statement of the principal theme; but this was a solitary misjudgement of balance in an otherwise faultless performance. Sometimes the audience was distracted by the sound of Polyansky’s stamping (he dispensed with a podium, perhaps unwisely given the resonant wood flooring of the hall platform) which added an unexpected percussion accompaniment.

We had some more unexpected percussion in the encore, where suddenly three additional players appeared on the platform to give the audience a dance from Shostakovich’s early Soviet agitprop ballet The bolt. I have in the past grumbled about the failure of performers to announce in advance what they are going to perform as an encore, which has the unfortunate side-effect that the audience spend half their time trying to work out what it is they are hearing rather than listening to the music. The performance here was not helped by the conductor staging a pantomime of walking off while the orchestra were still playing; this not only brought a ripple of applause from the audience who thought the concert was actually over, but also served to reinforce the impression one had received earlier that the orchestra were so well rehearsed that they didn’t really need the conductor at all. I rather hope that Polyansky will dispense with what is rather a cheap trick in future; it was clear that the orchestra knew precisely what they were doing, and what was going to happen.

Nonetheless this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert, and although one might have welcomed something a bit less familiar it was clear that the orchestra was thoroughly at home with the music. One would like to hear Lomeiko again in the Tchaikovsky concerto, too.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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