Sladkovsky unleashes the Tenth International Festival ‘Rakhlin Seasons’ with a superb ‘Eroica’ Symphony

Russian FederationRussian Federation International Festival ‘Rakhlin Seasons’- Beethoven: Wang Yugian (pianist), Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor). Livestreamed from the Saydachev Concert Hall, Kazan, 3.4.2021. (GT)

Tartarstan National Symphony Orchestra & Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor)

Beethoven – Overture to Egmont, Op.84; Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op.15; Symphony No.3 in E major, Op.55 ‘Eroica’

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the ‘Rakhlin Seasons’ International Festival in Kazan (for information click here) marking the orchestra’s founding conductor Nathan Rakhlin. It was roughly three years ago that I attended the opening concert in Kazan in a spectacular performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony by this orchestra under their Music Director Alexander Sladkovsky. This year Maestro Sladkovsky marks his tenth year in charge of this ensemble, and it seems the orchestra sound better every passing year. In 2021, the festival is programming all the symphonies by Beethoven, picking up from their opening concert last September of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

That showed that the Kazan musicians have Beethoven in their blood as much as they have Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Perhaps, it is because Sladkovsky spent his early musical education in Germany and grasped the sound of the Austro-German classics. Certainly, these musicians can adapt to the most diverse repertoire. Arguably, it is more difficult to master the Austrian classics than it is the late romantic composers, and the question of period performance is not something attempted here, only with concessions made to natural brass and percussion.

The quality of the string sound, and the bright woodwind, against the brass playing was extraordinary. I have heard this ensemble in different Russian symphonies, and in Mahler and Strauss but I did not expect this brighter degree of sound from the Kazan musicians. Sladkovsky seems to have adopted a slightly different seating plan with some space separating the sections of the orchestra and occupying the centre of the concert stage with space from the rear wall of the hall. This enhanced the sound with less musicians on stage.

The opening Egmont overture was typically good preparation for what was to come; it was dramatic and exciting, and here the Russians have the nobility and heroism in their blood. The horns were glorious and sounding at times almost like natural instruments, and the woodwind was sparkling clear in their intonation, with gritty basses giving gravitas to Beethoven’s writing. Sladkovsky portrayed well the two opposing forces with the slow, weighty opening, against the animated passionate Allegro, all before the woodwind herald the jubilation of victory and the transfiguration of Beethoven’s hero after death, and liberation of the oppressed in Goethe’s tragedy.

It was interesting to hear a young Chinese pianist playing with this orchestra; it is more usual to hear a Russian soloist in collaboration with Sladkovsky’s musicians, but there is an ever-growing flow of Asian musical talent coming to the West, offering both musicality and virtuosity. I must admit that this young musician was unknown to me, so I put Mr Wang’s name into Google and the result came out Yuja Wang! I doubt if this fine young musician will ever achieve the worldwide celebrity of his compatriot, but certainly on this showing, he is assured a fine career in future decades.

Wang Yugian (piano), TNSO & Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor)

Wang Yugian was born in Changchun in 1999 and studied with Professor Gen Tsen until 2017 when he entered the Kazan Conservatoire where he is currently studying with Professor Burnasheva. He has already gained several prizes in numerous piano competitions both in China, Russia and in Europe. In 2019, he won First Prize at the Hong Kong International Chopin Competition. He has a fine musicality and graceful touch of the keyboard.

The First Piano Concerto was virtuosic in the opening Allegro, with the conductor allowing the soloist every opportunity for expression, and Wang showed why he is such a fine prospect with delightfully fine keyboard ornamentation on the Steinway. In the Adagio, there was some enchanting playing, with the soloist bringing out delightful song-like harmonies, at times reflective, evincing great beauty before the sunny final Allegro, which was breathtakingly exuberant, with Wang entering somewhat brusquely, yet well supported by the violins, and the emerging charming folk dance melodies ended crisply in a brightly optimistic final culmination. Wang Yugian returned to give an encore of a Chinese folk-inspired lullaby called ‘The Moon’ in which all the picturesque oriental beauty was portrayed by this young talent.

In the great ‘Eroica’ Symphony, it was stunning to hear the luxuriant string tone in the Allegro con brio – sounding quite different from what one expects from a Russian orchestra. There was some outstanding playing from the first horn, and also the clarinet, Sladkovsky has spent time in rehearsal creating the classical Beethoven sound of this orchestra. Just a week ago, I was listening to their Rachmaninov symphonies, and admiring the lush, velvety cushioned string playing, however here in Beethoven, they had a leaner tone unlike the way Russian orchestras normally play. Sladkovsky had thirty first and second violins on his left, nine cellos in front of him, and on his right, twelve violas, and eight double basses.

In the Marche funebre. Adagio assai, the orchestra played a fine pianissimo in the opening measures, and the playing from the woodwind section was poignant; most of all, I was very impressed by the horn section, and the solos from Sergey Antonov. The phrasing and sense of pauses was excellently presented by the conductor, and although he had a score in front of him, he hardly turned a page all night. He has a very fine sense of line and structure, and the tragedy of the music had all the profundity of Beethoven’s funeral march exemplified. In the Scherzo, I was impressed by the bracing tempo, and again by the horns in the Trio, and the flute playing of Venera Porfiryeva, at times, the conductor was almost dancing with the very bright rhythms. In the Finale. Allegro molto, the playing was passionate with excellently performed variations introduced by the woodwind and taken up by every section of the orchestra – fully embracing the joie de vivre of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’. This was a memorable performance, and one of the best that I have heard in the last Beethoven anniversary year. As an encore, the Kazan musicians played Berlioz’s ‘Hungarian March’ to a jubilant audience which included a group of German musicologists from the Russian-German Music Academy, and most notably, the President of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov sent greetings to the festival. This Rakhlin International Festival continues performance of the Beethoven symphonies in April, some of which will be conducted by French and German conductors.

Gregor Tassie

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