A Russian orchestra playing big, soul-searching pieces of Russian music is always going to be a crowd-puller, and a full symphony orchestra visiting the North East is a rare treat, so it was no surprise that the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra had the cavernous Town Hall in Middlesbrough pretty much filled, with a very enthusiastic audience.

Pavel Kogan
Pavel Kogan

Conductor Pavel Kogan switched the running order, and opened with Khachaturian’s famous Adagio from his ballet Spartacus – the change wasn’t announced, but it was obvious. Khachaturian’s rolling melody provided an immediate introduction to that characteristically Russian orchestral sound; dark timbres in strings and woodwind, and lots of vibrato. The other Khachaturian piece on the programme, the Waltz from Masquerade, was unknown to me, but an absolute delight. The music comes from incidental music to a play by Lermontov, set in St Petersburg high society, that deals with jealousy and murder, and Khachaturian cleverly evokes the style and atmosphere of the early 19th-century ballroom, whilst adding a large dash of menace. This short piece was wonderfully suited to the orchestra’s sound and was played with panache.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto is intensely demanding on the soloist and on the audience; the first movement in particular is agonisingly cruel; from the harsh staccato string chords of the opening, through the relentless intricacies of the solo part, with Shostakovich’s rather sinister signature DSCH theme (D, E flat, C, B) ever present. Unfortunately Pavel Kogan started rather abruptly, before the audience were entirely settled, and soloist Nina Kotova played a bit too quietly for a creaky old town hall: whilst her guarded opening may have been effective in a good concert hall, the sound didn’t carry well here. The orchestra picked up energy though, mainly from the excellent woodwind section, and the first movement was highly enjoyable, in a rather sadistic way. Kotova lacked impact in the slow movement, and in the cadenza that follows; her performance was cold and uncommunicative, although she did overcome the acoustic problems, and her famous cello, previously owned by Jacqueline du Pré, really came into its own in the lower register.

Tchaikovsky died just a week after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, and the unadulterated outpouring of despair that is the Pathètique certainly lends weight to the theory that the composer’s death was suicide. To begin with, I feared that I was going to be disappointed with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra’s performance. By this stage, Pavel Kogan had taken more account of the acoustic, and the hushed opening was, by necessity, several notches louder than the ideal – but it failed to create the atmosphere of gloom that the opening section needs, and the performance was rather soporific until the great crash halfway through the first movement. This seemed to galvanise the orchestra, and from this moment onwards, the famous Russian soul was unleashed, in what became an electrifying performance, full of passion and shamelessly romantic.

The emotional drive came mostly from the strings, as they made the most of Tchaikovsky’s rich harmonies, and their tightly controlled dynamic ebb and flow added extra frisson to the lighter moments, but a magnificent trombone section gave the work lots of extra punch. They were, of course, thrillingly loud when they needed to be, and in the quieter passages, such as the simple hymn-like phrase at the end of the first movement, they radiated warmth. They even managed a surprising delicacy, along with the rest of the orchestra, in the sprightly opening to the third movement. This third movement is superficially more optimistic, but Kogan gave it a sense of forced happiness, of grin-and-bear it, before plunging into the depths of the final Adagio.

This last movement was almost unbearably heartbreaking, the strings continuing their sobs, and the brass section wringing every drop of torment from their melodies. The fat, dark tones of the ranks of cellos and double-basses were perfect for the work’s hushed ending, and it was a pity that Kogan then broke the spell with a couple of rather mediocre encore pieces.

***11