I had high expectations for the evening after being very impressed with an MSSO performance I had seen as a teenager. The first piece on the programme was the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor. The performance highlighted both the playful and brutal elements of the piece which made for an exciting performance. Though occasionally there were slight issues with the changing tempi and cross rhythms in the ensemble, the orchestra delivered a performance that really highlighted Borodin’s colourful orchestration. The cor anglais leant beautiful clarity and character to the Orientalist melody of the opening whilst at the same time the orchestra was able to generate immense power for the more violent, driving sections of the piece. The only thing that might have made this better would have been the use of a larger bass drum and crash cymbals, which did not quite supply the annihilative power needed in such a powerful ensemble.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 followed, displaying a very different style of Russian music. This performance seemed to encapsulate the best aspects of Romantic music, avoiding excessive sentimentality and cliché whilst swinging from highs to lows in what seemed to be a very genuine manner. There were some rather surprising tuning issues in the winds in certain parts of the piece, such as a significantly sharp clarinet solo in the second movement, but the overall effective communication of the piece eclipsed any such mishaps. The soloist, Igor Tchetuev, seemed to deliver what can only be described as a near-faultless performance, beautifully interpreting phrases in the most expressive manner. What I found even more impressive was his choice to hold back from bold expressionism at points to heighten the emotion of other areas. The end was met with rapturous applause and resulted in a solo piano encore of (I am reliably informed) a very beautiful Scriabin etude. His reception of the applause made him come across as very humble and modest, for some reason drawing a strange comparison in my mind to European Footballer of the Year, Lyonel Messi, who, despite his immense talent, pervades an air of great modesty. Tchetuev’s playing even succeeded to lower the cautious macho defences of some non-usual classical concert-goers sitting in front of me.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 followed the interval and was just as fantastic as I’d hoped for. The best accolade I believe I can give to the performance was simply that it did the piece justice. Whereas in the other two pieces we’d seen certain elements of orchestral playing to exhibit Russian music, here the audience felt the raw power of a driving, well oiled machine. There was an incredibly diverse range of playing that spanned from outright violence to impassioned melodies and playful dances but the thing that came across more than anything, and was representative of the whole evening’s music, was the sense of understanding of the music by the players. There was complete cohesion in their approach, which led to some very interesting and exciting playing, particularly notably in the articulations of the strings, the driving force behind most of the symphony.

The evening’s music was so well received that they played no fewer than four encores, almost reaching a point of hysterical farce, as the words “surely not another one” were murmured widely through the audience. If that’s not great value for money, I don’t know what is. Were I to suggest an orchestra for a classical music virgin to see, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra would have to be one of my top choices. They seem to understand and communicate the best spirit of the music they play, offering audiences a genuine and captivating experience and are an example of what a professional orchestra should aspire to be.

Simon Birch 11th May 2010