As an audience member, it can be difficult to muster enthusiasm about music the performers themselves don’t seem to care for. Such was the case with the Russian National Orchestra and Mikhail Pletnev’s concert of Enescu’s Isis and Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and Sixth Symphony. Careless, even poor playing made for an uninteresting performance of what on paper looked like a perfectly fine programme.

Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra © Alex Damian
Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra
© Alex Damian

Enescu’s Isis is a heady mix of orchestral sonorities – translucently shimmering strings and mysterious woodwinds, finished off with an ethereal, wordless female chorus. Romanian composer Pascal Bentoiu, basing his work on the composer’s sketches, orchestrated the piece after Enescu’s death. The music inhabits the same sound world as composers like Szymanowski and Scriabin, also owing much to French composers like Debussy and Ravel in its use of orchestral sound for sound’s sake.

Named after the Egyptian goddess of women and fertility, as well as Enescu’s name for his mistress, Isis' voluptuous sensuality is difficult to ignore. Yet that was exactly what Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra did. Instead of wallowing in Enescu’s lush orchestration, Pletnev and the RNO treated the piece as a series of disjointed instances of sound, playing the piece just to get it over with. The women of the Romanian Radio Academic Choir sang well enough, but they were often not together with the orchestra, left hanging in mid-air by Pletnev.

Nikolai Lugansky © Alex Damian
Nikolai Lugansky
© Alex Damian

The orchestra, sadly, did not fare much better in the next piece, Prokofiev’s tumultuous Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major. Following a flurry of excitement in the strings after the first movement’s slow introduction, the orchestra’s enthusiasm soon waned, and they were lacking in rhythmical drive and, at times, awareness throughout the piece. Despite a valiant effort by soloist Nikolai Lugansky, the piano was often overpowered in the most agitated sections. In addition, the piano lacked brilliance in the dry acoustic, the sound coming off as dull and plain, especially in the introduction.

There was more than a touch of autopilot evident in the orchestra, little attention being paid to intonation or indeed expression. While the orchestra seemed to agree more on musical intent towards the end of the theme and variations of the second movement, the whole thing came off as severely uninspired, Lugansky left to fill in the expressive gaps. The third movement was by far the best, the orchestra finally settling on a nicely mechanical approach and Lugansky’s playing growing ever more muscular, still allowing for tender lyricism. But with Lugansky hammering away, the orchestra played louder and louder, completely drowning out the piano in what should have been the thrilling conclusion.

The orchestra seemed slightly more invested in the music after the interval, yet their performance of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony was riddled with instrumental instability and inaccuracy, generally sounding a bit rough around the edges. Still, the opening of the first movement was appropriately ominous, with a grimly dancing viola solo and screaming brass. Prokofiev wrote his Sixth in memory of the tragedies of WWII, a painful and tragic counterpart to the victorious Fifth, written a few years earlier.

Russian National Orchestra © Alex Damian
Russian National Orchestra
© Alex Damian

The RNO and Pletnev managed to imbue the symphony with tragic grandeur, but the effect was dampened by a disregard of accuracy – whole groups of instruments simply not playing in time. What came off as rough around the edges in the first movement turned into downright shoddy in the following movement. The violins were often lagging behind the rest of the orchestra, most notably when they were supposed to be playing together with the first trumpet. String intonation in essence disintegrated, and the movement did not get back on track until the brass and percussion took over towards the end.

The third and final movement seemed to get the orchestra back on track, the seemingly optimistic string melody taken at quite a lick and, most importantly, played together. Still, the returns to the tragedy and pain of the first two movements were lacking in heft, and ended up sounding generically happy. Despite the many things that were wrong with this performance, the herculean efforts of the first trumpet player were simply astonishing. The first trumpet part of Prokofiev’s Sixth can feel like a series of increasingly daunting solos, getting progressively higher, longer and louder. How the first trumpet player had lips left by the end, I do not understand!

It was not until the encore that the RNO seemed to let loose and enjoy themselves. While the Waltz from Khatchaturian’s Masquerade Suite is entertaining enough, in its ear-catching melodies and general opportunities for loudness, it hardly felt appropriate after the dramatics of the Sixth. The waltz was well-played, but it did not distract from the unengaging playing during the rest of the concert.