Sladkovsky’s Tatarstan Musicians Amaze at a Piano Festival in Provence

FranceFrance Various composers, La Roque D’Anthéron International Piano Festival 2018: Parc du Chateau Florans, 26 & 27.7.2018. (GT)

Alexander Malofeev (piano), Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor) & Tatarstan NSO

Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Julianna Avdeeva (piano), Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor), 26.7.2018.

Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Yury Favorin (piano), Alexander Malofeev (piano), Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor), 27.7.2018

In the first of two concerts by Sladkovsky and his excellent orchestra as part of this annual international piano festival held in the south of France. The orchestral concerts are held in an open-air arena which with its construction allows superb acoustics for the audience who sit in a great bowl before the covered stage. Chamber recitals are held at other smaller venues in the beautiful grounds of the Parc du Chateau Florans.

This is the 38th Festival to be held here and which has attracted the world’s finest pianists and orchestras. It was only a few weeks since I had heard this ensemble in their own concert hall in Kazan, and as I understand they enjoyed a short break and it appeared they were refreshed from the intensity of their month-long Rachmaninov festival. However, the heat and the muggy atmosphere could have kept the public away but here there was a full house, and including many Russian expats, they could expect a warm welcome.

Julianna Avdeeva is a new name for me, however her credentials are admirable for she is the fourth woman to win the First Prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition (2010) following Bella Davidovich, Halina Czerny-Stefanska, and Martha Argerich, she also won the second prize at the Geneva Music Competition (2006), and the Paderewski Piano Competition (2007). She has appeared in the UK frequently and has several recordings of romantic repertoire available.

In the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, it was clear from the opening chords that Avdeeva has a wonderful touch, her fingers moving almost magically across the keyboard producing notes of crystal clear beauty, this performance was quite different from a recent one heard by me by Valentina Lisitsa, and another by Denis Matsuev, which were powerful in their romanticism and bold power, this performance was quite revealing in the arpeggios and the chisel-like decoration by Avdeeva reminding us of the esteem by Rachmaninov of Chopin and perhaps showing depth of the Slavic soul of the composer more than other interpreters. In this she had the complete backing of Sladkovsky’s musicians, for it was clear that they listened to each other, discernible by the clarinet solo, from the oboe, the flute and French horn passage following the cadenza in the first movement. This was a wonderfully eloquent reading with the notes emitting from the piano with dazzling finesse and grace. Some people might prefer their Rachmaninov to be chiselled from granite, or from the depths of a Russian forest, this was bright and clear in its sparkling bright musicality.

As an encore the young Russian gave us the F minor Nocturne by Chopin, wholly befitting after this stunning performance.

The second part of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, one of the great Russian symphonies, but not always the easiest to bring off successfully. I had never heard this conductor in Tchaikovsky before, so this was a good opportunity to hear his take on this glorious work. This was a very musical interpretation, and idiosyncratic not necessarily portraying the darkness in the score, which some conductors have brought out, particularly the waltz, which Mravinsky described as like the dance of death rather than the balletic wistfully romantic playing many others depict. Here Sladkovsky brought out the symphony’s allegiance to folk lore including the wistfully romantic Polish love song which forms the Andante cantabile, there was grace and much beauty in his conducting, and he reminds me most of Svetlanov in his heroically expressive gestures, always bringing out the passion and emotion from the score. The playing by the strings was beautiful in characterisation, there is a golden bloom from the first and second violins on left to the double basses on the far right. This is one of the glories of this orchestra from strings to the brass and percussion there is a very high degree of musicality, a feature displayed by the conductor allowing all the departments to show their virtuosity, and a quality in performance which distinguishes them from other Russian orchestras, excepting only Gergiev and Fedoseyev’s outfits. This Tatar orchestra really don’t have a weakness, and more so the standard is on a high international level, and the conductor intends to make them even better.

Sometimes, it is the encores which can show the virtuosity of a visiting orchestra off to its limit; here they gave first two short colourful dances by Tchaikovsky, from the Nutcracker, and the Spanish Dance from Swan Lake, with at one point the conductor stamping to the music, and finally the Tatar folk inspired piece Stan Tamerlane this time by Alexander Tchaikovsky, which on my first hearing ranges from modernist Mosolov, to Khachaturian and Shostakovich. It’s a brilliantly orchestrated piece, with the rhythm dominated by the percussion and a constant roar from the low brass and finally the musicians singing a chorus. If that was not enough to bring the house down, Sladkovsky turned around and started conducting the audience and repeated the final bars all to a tremendous close and a standing ovation from the audience. This was a terrific concert and an event in the proper sense of the word.

For the second concert by Sladkovsky and his excellent orchestra on this occasion we heard two quite different Russian pianists; Yury Favorin is a student of Mikhail Voskresensky at the Moscow Conservatoire and also composes and has an interest in contemporary music and particularly for neglected music. Alexander Malofeev however is a brilliant young sixteen year old from Moscow who won the Grand Piano Competition last year and already has played with several leading Russian orchestras.

The Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto is the most testing piece for any pianist however for Favorin, it seemed as if a perfect work for his incredible skills, he invoked a beautiful dreamy passage somewhat anticipating the wondrous world of Cinderella in his late mature period, yet this was quickly surpassed in the Allegretto passage where Favorin revealed his supreme skills in the oscillating triplet semi-quaver runs which the composer himself described as the hardest part, this was performed as the almost mad and chaotic modernist concerto it is and amazing that this orchestra could match him for every chord. In the brief Scherzo, the notes spun from his fingers, and I can’t remember such a brilliant piece of fantastic virtuosity. The motoric element was prominent with the almost breath-taking playing by Favorin dazzling, it is difficult how to characterise this musician, that he is also a composer, and someone who likes to play, and record neglected composers such as Alkan, Medtner is part of his career background. At every stage he was matched by Sladkovsky’s musicians, with brilliant contributions from the trombones, tuba, and percussion in the Intermezzo, and the treading theme on the piano looked ahead to the Third Concerto, backed up by clarinets, oboes and flute, while the invocation of Schoenberg in the Finale was carefully announced by the soloist before the culminating final chords. This was a quite stunning performance and worth the entrance fee alone. Favorin gave one encore, a Prokofiev Op.2 Etude that was quite astonishingly executed.

The third Russian pianist to be introduced by the Tatarstan ensemble was the brilliant young sixteen-year-old Alexander Malofeev who is being steadily developed as one of the next stars of the Russian piano school. If the Second Prokofiev Concerto is hard enough, the Third is a difficult piece to follow particularly for this young man. However from the entry on woodwind, and his explosive entry it was clear this soloist has great, exceptional talent not only in technique but artistry carefully listening to the orchestra, the dramatic entries by brass, and the eloquent play on the oboe, Malofeev’s clear articulation bringing out all the magical dreamy notes, the interplay between the musicians enchanting and musical, suddenly the mood changes to a prolonged breath-taking passage on keyboard, and dissonant interruptions by the woodwind and brass. In the second movement, the sarcasm alternates with the dreamy mood and dissonance mixed with lyricism again matching the soloist in every variation, and showing the sharp virtuosity of the musicians of the orchestra in keeping up with Malofeev’s mastery. The finale was a brilliant exhibition of some quite stunning virtuosity by the young Muscovite matched by some great accompaniment by the orchestra. He gave two fantastically difficult encores; the first a Toccata by Prokofiev, and the same composer’s Precipitato from the Seventh Sonata.

The Fourth Symphony by Tchaikovsky brought this long evening to a close with the dramatic opening chords and a special contribution from this orchestra’s outstanding brass department whose thrilling introductory motto theme sets up the entire work and the dread theme of fate as striking as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. Hans Keller considered the Fourth the greatest by this composer, and justified this by the complex and original first movement, ‘a pure symphony’ in Keller’s words. Certainly, in the hands of a great conductor it can be placed in that category, here Sladkovsky handled magnificently the dramaturgical power of the fresh exciting contrasts mixed with naked violence with every musician playing as if their life depended on it. The rhythmic nature is something which was developed forcefully with the subdued waltz emerging in full glory, and admirably characterised by the strings led by Alina Yakonina. The woodwind revealed their virtuosity bringing out the folksong origins, especially the graceful, melancholic solo on the oboe in the Andantino. The quality of the solos, like bird song, from the flute, clarinet and oboe were of stunning beauty played at a leisurely yet elegant pace, often reminding me of children playing in the woodlands.

In the brilliant Scherzo, again Yakonina led the violins neatly in the magical pizzicato section, the notes spinning from their fingers invoking images of nature. The entry of the oboe led to the rest of the woodwind making their mark and then brass delicately picking up the idea with the movement closing with the strings dying away into nothingness. The dramatic chords of the Finale heralding a glorious finish on the brass celebrant before the entry of the folk song ‘In the fields stood a birch-tree’ with the idea shared by the woodwind, brass and strings, with notably a beautiful contribution by the horns, before the final culmination bringing the symphony to a glorious festive close, magisterially directed by Sladkovsky who shows he is just as fine an interpreter of Tchaikovsky as he is in Rachmaninov.

The encores were the same as the previous evening, only Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance of the Cygnets’ from Swan Lake adding to those from the previous evening, and closed by Tamerlane’s Camp by Alexander Tchaikovsky, a piece which has become this orchestra’s visiting card, and which erupted in a standing ovation from the celebratory audience. It seems to me from hearing these musicians that in coming years many more people will be hearing this extraordinary piece played by this outstanding orchestra from Kazan.

Gregor Tassie

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