“From Russia with love” might have been an apt title for this evening’s performance from the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra on the Irish leg of their tour, for this was a concert designed to showcase all that is best in Russian music both in interpretation and in composition. With one of Moscow’s leading orchestras performing Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky under the baton of one of Russia’s most widely known and respected conductors, Pavel Kogan, it was a total immersion in Russian culture for the evening. It is always a pleasure to hear a visiting orchestra, especially one as sharp and energetic as the MSSO. Kogan has been Music Director and Chief Conductor of the MSSO since 1989 and the orchestra’s meticulous and disciplined approach show how fruitful such collaboration has been. Tonight, he was joined for the concerto performance by English cellist Tim Hugh, a thoughtful musician and an erstwhile Cambridge medic.

© Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
© Moscow State Symphony Orchestra

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Introduction and Three Miracles from Tsar Saltan is an orchestral suite from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, a fantastical story of a princess being turned into a swan by her vindictive sisters and the adventures she undergoes in order to be returned to princess-form again at the end. Right from the start, this was a confident, electrical performance with sharp characterisation; the piccolos were fairy-like and the brass suggestive of marching soldiers. Two things stuck out for me in this suite: firstly, the palpable sense of energy from the orchestra, and secondly the sound Kogan drew from the orchestra, now seething with emotion, now bathing in dreamy oriental harmonies. Interestingly, Kogan brings his own large podium with him, which allows him to physically tower over the MSSO. His dramatic approach worked well for this little-heard orchestral suite.

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 had an interesting gestation period. Composed in 1957 amidst much suspicion by the State, Shostakovich gave the score to Rostropovich, who four days later had memorized the whole work. One quibble I had was in relation to the positioning of this piece directly after Rimsky-Korsakov’s, which ended fortissimo. Consequently, for the first few minutes of the cello concerto, I had to listen very attentively to what should be the loud attack of the opening. That said, Hugh delivered a courageous performance conveying the miasma of agitation and fear inherent with this piece with the music’s driving rhythm and treacherous double-stops. Kogan, who started his musical career as a violin soloist, showed a fine sensitivity to Hugh’s phrasing and colouring. In the second movement, there was an exquisite moment where the cello’s phrase melted into the orchestra’s part: it was clear that all the strings were listening intently to Hugh’s dynamic shading as they joined in with a complementary pianissimo. It was in the third movement’ cadenza that the music relented in its intensity and allowed Hugh the opportunity to make his cello “speak” with simplicity and longing. The fiendish technical challenges posed in the remainder of this movement were surmounted with aplomb, and the relentless pursuit of the finale (a moto perpetuto) left us almost gasping by the end.

The highlight for me came in the second half with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6. If the opening was not quite as atmospheric as I would have liked, the famous first subject had all the warm Russian tone from the lush strings that one could desire. A remarkable trait of this orchestra is how keenly each section listens to one another: when the woodwind were in busy dialogue with one another, the violins had ricochets that were perfectly subservient to them. The clarinet melody was shaped so exquisitely at the end of the first section that the subsequent sforzando by the whole orchestra was properly shocking for once. The expressive second movement highlighted the ability and agility of the orchestra to respond instantly to the mercurial directions of Kogan. The third movement is a swashbuckling affair with its booming brass section, full of cross rhythms, dialogue between the sections, darts of forte, changing from breezily cheerful to sombre and back again. The brass section was key to the success of this movement. Given its victorious ending it was an unfortunate if understandable error that applause broke out from some enthusiastic members of the audience. Yet the Pathétique is not only about life but death too, and its final lamenting adagio is a profound reflection on death. There was a nobility to be heard in the sound in some of the more serene section while the downward spiralling motive and the fateful brass and percussion all sounded the death knell. The double basses finished in a profound silence, bringing this concert to a magnificent close.

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