Russian National Orchestra on Tour in Europe

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Glazunov: Russian National Orchestra, Renaud Capuçon (violin), Mikhail Pletnev (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich  15.3.16. (JR)

Tchaikovsky:  Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture
Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto No.3
Glazunov: The Seasons 

Warm thanks yet again are due to Swiss retail colossus Migros (Kulturprozent Classics) who, thanks to the philanthropic wishes of its now deceased founder, have to spend a proportion of their turnover annually on the arts; this enables them to help fund tours by the world’s top orchestras to Swiss cities. This month it was the turn of the prestigious Russian National Orchestra, the first non-State orchestra to be formed in Russia after the end of the Communist era. It was founded in 1990 by Mikhail Pletnev, who divides his time between piano and podium; though I believe his conducting commitments are now predominating. Pletnev remains the orchestra’s Artistic Director.

The orchestra brought an entertaining and not entirely run-of-the-mill programme to Zurich. Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy Overture is, of course, standard fare but makes for a fine curtain raiser. Although the orchestra does not have the standard Russian (to our ears rather harsh) sound, you knew you were not listening to a Central European orchestra; there is more bite to the strings, more beef in the brass. They tended to be too loud; the Tonhalle is small and needs no added decibels.

Pletnev took the opening of the Tchaikovsky far too slowly; it is marked “Andante non tanto quasi moderato” but it almost fell apart and entries were imprecise as a result. The fast section to end the piece was delivered with swagger and the string section was impeccably drilled right to the very back desks.

Saint-Saëns consulted the very young and prodigious violinist Pablo de Sarasate on the technicalities of all his violin concertos; by the time of his third concerto, the solo part had become quite fiendishly tricky. It required a violinist of Renaud Capuçon’s calibre to bring it off. He recorded it under Lionel Bringuier and the Orchestre National de France a few years ago, but surprisingly still found the intonation taxing at times, though his overall prowess was never in doubt. The first movement is the weakest and tends to meander, without recognisable tune. The Andante however starts with a gorgeous melody, and the solo violin is aided and abetted by virtuosic flute and oboe contributions. Capuçon’s tone was golden, emanating from his 1737 Guarneri del Gesù, one previous owner by the name of Isaac Stern, a former teacher of Capuçon’s. The audience were as quiet as dormice. The final movement is also charming, with added brass peroration to bring the work to a close. Loud applause was rewarded with a gentle encore, a “Melodie” by Glück.

The orchestra had its chance to shine in Glazunov’s “The Seasons” and shine they duly did. The work is full of tunes you know and love but had forgotten who wrote them. It’s a piece written for the ballet, so the orchestra were busy turning pages every few minutes, as each “movement” only lasted a few minutes. Glazunov stuns with impressive orchestral writing, colouration (including a variety of woodwind, celesta, glockenspiel, tambourine and harp) and wonderful melody; he is underrated and under-performed by non-Russian orchestras. In the piece it’s easy to visualise nymphs and shepherds dancing in fields of swaying poppies and cornflowers, and talking of swaying, the entire double bass section did their bit, very theatrically. The orchestra’s young flautist caught everyone’s attention (judging by the roars he received at the end), Pletnev will do well to try to keep him before he is lured away to other orchestras. The clarinet also impressed, although he suffered an unfortunate mishap, a squawked note.

This was an immensely enjoyable concert by a fine orchestra, and a chance to hear two works which are not often given an outing. The orchestra is fresh from a three week tour of the States, from coast to coast, and now goes on to the Swiss cities of Berne, St. Gallen and Geneva before touring further around Europe, Paris (May 20), Düsseldorf (May 21), Essen (May 22) and Budapest (May 24). Catch them if you can.

John Rhodes

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