Moscow Philharmonic launch the Cardiff International Concert Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Khachaturian: Peter Donohoe (piano), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra / Yuri Simonov (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 9.10.2019. (PCG)

Yuri Simonov

TchaikovskyMarche Slave, Op.31; Swan Lake (1877): excerpts

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op.40

KhachaturianGayaneh (1941): excerpts

It is always a pleasure to welcome back to Cardiff the superlatively virtuosic Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under their characterful conductor Yuri Simonov. A couple of years ago, their appearance in the St David’s Hall International Concert series had been consigned to a Sunday afternoon. I suggested then that they should be featured at an evening event; and – lo and behold! – here they were again, now launching the season for 2019-2020 in spectacular style.

From the very opening of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, it was clear that the orchestra had the measure of the hall’s acoustic, as in their previous appearances. Despite the absence of any risers to raise the woodwind, brass and percussion above the strings, the internal balances were superbly judged, and the projection of the trumpets at the climax were thrillingly calico-tearing in the best Russian tradition. The articulation of the strings and woodwind too was scintillating, far more than just a curtain-raiser.

For the concerto, the orchestra was joined by Peter Donohoe. He had last appeared at this venue playing Rachmaninov in 2015, when he performed the third piano concerto with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – a marvellous occasion. Here he played the much less popular fourth piano concerto, in its first outing in Cardiff for a good many years. The relative neglect of this work is not hard to explain: a lack of the element of lush romanticism to be found in the second concerto or the Paganini Rhapsody, and the comparative brevity of the score by comparison with its more substantial predecessors. But the writing for solo piano contains every bit as much dazzling display as the third concerto. As in his performance of the latter work four years ago, Peter Donohoe never put a finger wrong in the course of a virtuoso display. He rightly played Rachmaninov’s final 1940 revision of the score, never mind the growing tendency nowadays to revert to the longer but more discursive 1926 original. (The whole question of Rachmaninov’s continual amendments to the music extending over fourteen years was discussed illuminatingly in Timothy Dowling’s extensive and informative programme note.) As an encore, Peter Donohoe played Tchaikovsky’s Humoreske, Op.10 No.4, perhaps better known now from its use by Stravinsky in his ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. As it often happens at this venue, the performer did not tell the audience what they were hearing.

Back in Cardiff in 2014, Yuri Simonov had given us his own suite extracted from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, from which he had omitted probably the best-known single number in the shape of the waltz. Here we had his own set of highlights from Swan Lake, which not only excised any material from the later acts but also removed two of the best-known passages: the Act II Prelude and the Dance of the Little Swans. (The latter, perversely enough, was highlighted in Timothy Dowling’s programme note.) The resultant collage had a tendency to ramble and left this listener at least somewhat unsatisfied despite Dmitry Shorokhov’s excellent solo violin contribution.

The suite assembled from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh was quite another matter. Simonov had extracted seven individual items from the composer’s own three suites. Here the music formed a most satisfactory whole. Contrasts between fast and slow material and the famous Sabre Dance were incorporated into the body of the music rather than as a featured extract at the very outset. The saxophone and brass players, bobbing up and down enthusiastically from their seats, lent a positively theatrical atmosphere to the proceedings; so too did the balletic antics of the conductor, occasionally provoking chuckles from the audience. Even such a performance as this could not convince us that Gayaneh falls into the realms of great music, but it certainly served to show that it was superbly well written, and the playing of the orchestra was a technical triumph.

The three encores were also a triumph. (All of them were announced by the conductor, for which many thanks!) Two encores rectified the omissions in the Swan Lake suite by providing two dances from Act III, including a Spanish Dance which gave Simonov the opportunity to display an unlikely affinity for flamenco technique in his movements – and stamping – on the podium. Best of all was the waltz from Khachaturian’s Masquerade. Originally written as incidental music to a play, the music survived magnificently the transition to a full symphonic transformation. Everyone involved delivered their full power with no concern about any possible hint of vulgarity. Indeed, the results may have been categorised as vulgar in the extreme, and the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was not very far away. No matter; the results were also highly enjoyable, and rightly brought the audience to their feet, cheering.

I have in the past suggested to St David’s Hall management that they might find it useful, when foreign orchestras are visiting the UK, to advertise other concerts on the tour (in exchange for reciprocal arrangements with other halls, to their mutual benefit). This has not happened in this case. Let me take the opportunity to advise potential audiences in other locations that the orchestra is scheduled to appear in Cadogan Hall, London (10 October), in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (11 October), in Usher Hall, Edinburgh (13 October) and in Symphony Hall, Birmingham (15 October). The programmes vary, but the last three will feature Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, which I imagine would suit these performers stupendously.

Paul Corfield Godfrey