Everyone tells me that Russians play Russian music better than anyone else, but no-one seems to be able to put their fingers on the mysterious quality of Russianness Russians are meant to produce when playing Russian. Whatever its nature, it pulls in the punters, and I was among them for the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and conductor Pavel Kogan’s all-Russian appearance at Bristol’s Colston Hall.

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra

Rimsky-Korsakov’s bizarre Introduction and Three Miracles from Tsar Saltan began the concert. The most famous music from this opera is The Flight of the Bumblebee, but the music presented here bore little resemblance to that familiar dizzying excerpt, though it was certainly flighty. In fact, it barely stayed still long enough to be able to pin down: a trumpet fanfare cut in whenever it started to settle, whether into a sprightly, wintry section with pizzicato strings, high winds and pitched percussion; a melting passage with slow harp arpeggios and long willowy wind lines; or gorgeously warm sweeping violin melody joined by a triumphant brass chorale. I grew rather to resent the trumpet, whose bossy motive kept announcing itself, spoiling the party like that loud, self-important guest no-one invited. Over-assertive fanfares aside, the orchestra produced a truly rich, luxurious sound that to be was the norm all night, except when it was impinged upon by less felicitous noises.

The next piece came as a slightly disappointing surprise. In place of Nina Kotova playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto, the programme read Tchaikovsky’s Roccoco Variations: an alteration unannounced by the traditional apologetic A4 printouts blu-tacked to every surface in the foyer before the concert. Quaint concert-hall imagery aside, this switch did have a profound effect on the balance of the concert by making it 80% Tchaikovsky. What’s more, it was a disappointing performance; the orchestra continued to make an extraordinarily luscious sound, but the soloist simply did not seem up for it. Kotova seemed ill at ease, especially in the more virtuosic passages (which constitutes quite a lot of Tchaikovsky’s Variations, as you’d expect), creating a nervous sound at odds with the orchestra. Even upon her return to the stage for the obligatory soloist’s encore, for which she played Bach’s usually intensely beautiful Sarabande from the Suite in G, there was little life, little interest, little engagement evident in the way Kotova performed.

The orchestra recovered spectacularly from this setback in a fantastic performance of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Fifth Symphony. The theme that pervades the entire work opened the symphony in the dark hues of the clarinet and low strings. The impassioned strings produced a quality of sound that was strikingly rich, and the understated but vibrant winds were excellent as well; however, I’m afraid a staging error meant that the brass were simply too loud, and totally dominated the orchestral texture whenever they played above a mezzo-forte, which, with Tchaikovsky, is frequently. The orchestra was all on stage level with the exception of trumpets, trombones and timpani, who were raised by over a metre on a tier at the back of the stage. Their sound thus projected with ease, but horns and winds suffered by their own lack of elevation, especially when there was dialogue between the horns and trumpets – the latter overpowering, the former underwhelming in comparison. This had no effect on the utterly beautiful horn solo of the second movement, in which the horn has one of those meltingly gorgeous melodies only Tchaikovsky can write, on a bed of strings and with an imitative clarinet. It was supreme. The winds again feature in the spritely, lilting waltz, crystal clear in their rapid passages, before the theme is brought back assertively by the strings at the start of the Finale. A great sense of energy was created by the flurrying strings, whose rapid passages sparkled out between the notes of the brass statement of the theme. Although not always precisely together, the orchestra combined to make this a highly exciting end to a great performance.

That majestic music doesn’t require following, but it’s tradition for the MSSO to provide a few encores. We had a couple, and very Russian affairs they were too: the first, a lush, slow excerpt featuring clarinets; the second, a lively, triangle-tingling, cymbal-crashing, bass-drum-smashing piece, complete with whizzing and whooping violins. Russian addicts certainly had their fill of Russianness tonight.

***11