Cogent Scriabin from Russian National Orchestra with a bombastic Tchaikovsky Blockbuster

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2016 (10) – Silvestrov, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin: Denis Matsuev (piano), Russian National Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor), Usher Hall, 21.8.2016. (SRT)

Silvestrov: Elegy
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Scriabin: Symphony No. 2

The Russian National Orchestra ended their two-night EIF residency with Scriabin and, to my very great surprise, I found it the most cogent thing they played all weekend. I’ve said before that I’m no lover of Scriabin – I find his highly perfumed sound world somewhat exhausting – but the second symphony dates from the first (slightly less barmy) half of his career, and the RNO argued the best case for it that I’m likely to hear for a long time. The themes were clearly enunciated and beautifully played – bravo to that chameleonic clarinettist! – and, most importantly of all, Kirill Karabits charted a coherent architectural course from the primordial soup of the first movement through to the triumphant (if slightly banal) march of the finale. Even the tropical garden of the slow movement was pretty light on its feet, and Karabits refused to allow it to wallow. The same danger was avoided in the admittedly very different soundscape of Silverstrov’s Elegy, which is actually drawn by Silvestrov from sketches from the composer Ivan Karabits, the conductor’s father. The spare, somewhat icy texture was kept moving and I found it rather hypnotic, a strange post-Soviet form of minimalism, almost.

Minimalist is the last word you would choose to describe Denis Matsuev’s playing in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Like Paul Lewis the previous evening, Matsuev was a stand-in for an injured Mikhail Pletnev, and it necessitated a change in programme. But unlike Paul Lewis, who played Mozart like a poet trying to hide himself within the music, Matsuev played the Tchaikovsky like a bulldozer trying to reshape a landscape. He went at the opening like a bull at a gate, and had such a ramstam attitude to the first movement that his chords regularly collided into one another and his runs were desperately muddy. In all three movements he kept pushing ahead of Karabits’ beat. You can excuse some of that due to the fact that he’s a short-term replacement, but I expect more from someone like him who knows the concerto so well and has recorded it so brilliantly. True, Tchaikovsky’s concerto doesn’t exactly invite subtlety, but the soloist was trying to turn the whole performance into The Denis Matsuev Show, with barely any regard for conductor or orchestra, and I found it rather distasteful. His second encore (!) was technically impressive (I wonder if it was improvised?) but musically banal and ultimately rather ridiculous. The concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Thursday 15th September, so you can hear for yourself.

The 2016 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson

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