United Kingdom Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: John Lill (piano), Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Pavel Kogan (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.5.2016 (SRT)
Shostakovich: Festive Overture
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4
Founded in 1943 by the Kremlin itself, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra is probably the closest thing there is to the quintessential modern Russian orchestra, and this programme of Russian classics was designed to show off their strengths to the best. It succeeded in doing so in the first half, kicking off with a quicksilver performance of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture that crackled with electricity. The orchestra’s trademark sound generates largely from their bright-as-a-button brass, positioned in the middle of the orchestra and thus giving them a bigger than usual influence on the sound, and their razor-sharp attack was a pretty attention-grabbing way to begin the concert.
I was expecting the strings to have a little more depth to them than they demonstrated at the opening of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, but their dark, rich hue gave an air of earthy authenticity to Rachmaninov’s sweeping themes, and both they and the winds were fully inside the composer’s sense of the long line, revelling in the heart-on-sleeve Romanticism of the work. John Lill, whose energetic playing suggests that his eighth decade is agreeing with him, approached the work with undemonstrative lyricism, be it in the smooth legato ripplings that characterised the opening movement or the meltingly tender lines of the slow movement. The finale glittered as brightly as did the Shostakovich, and the whole concerto was made to sound as though the music had been scrubbed down and cleansed of any clutter.
Their Tchaikovsky also benefited from the rich string tone, most especially in the cellos of the second movement, but the brass fanfares didn’t pin me to the back of my seat in the way I was hoping they would, and Pavel Kogan seemed to stress the work’s forward momentum at the expense of its thematic coherence. That worked in the bustle of the Scherzo, but the finale was so recklessly fast that the unanimity of the playing, so impressive in the first half, simply fell apart in a muddle of haze. They pulled it back with a beautifully nuanced Rachmaninov Vocalise and Shostakovich Tahiti Trot for their encores (plus a third piece I didn’t recognise), but the Tchaikovsky was a missed opportunity.