Having resoundingly declared not two weeks ago that I had never seen the CBSO perform so well, I am forced to admit that the orchestra have once again outdone themselves. This time, Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky, music director of the Bolshoi Theatre, along with three of the opera house’s renowned soloists, joined the CBSO and their Chorus for an evening celebrating 19th-century Russian masterpieces.

Vassily Sinaisky © Marco Borggreve
Vassily Sinaisky
© Marco Borggreve

Opening with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, in the version for chorus and orchestra, was a bold move. With any performance of such a well-known piece, the pressure is on from the outset to deliver an exceptional performance. The CBSO did not disappoint. The CBSO chorus were utterly fantastic, displaying their dexterity with an extreme contrast between their solemn, a cappella entry and the brash, triumphant re-entry at the climax of the piece. The percussion were perfectly overdramatic and similarly the soloists – particularly cellist and flautist – were nothing short of exceptional. My one criticism is that although this was a brilliant opening, it felt more like an ending. How to follow a performance such as this?

And yet with Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1 in F minor, the orchestra managed it. As with the Tchaikovsky, the opening was stunning. Shostakovich treats the orchestra like a series of soloists, and this aspect was executed faultlessly, with each performer complementing and not overshadowing their colleagues. As a whole, the orchestra effectively captured the shifting mood of the piece aptly and the waltz section was particularly lovely. Without wishing to make this review sound like a laundry list by naming each of them individually, I think it is only fair to recognise that each soloist performed remarkably well.

What tonight has taught me is that concerts, like football matches, can be a game of two halves. Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells followed the interval with soloists from the Bolshoi Theatre each performing a movement from the piece. Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov sang the first movement, “The Silver Sleigh Bells”. Politely put, his performance style could be described as understated. With an undoubtedly beautiful voice, it was a shame that it was too often overpowered by the orchestra.

Ekaterina Scherbachenko followed, singing “The Mellow Wedding Bells”.. Having been studying in Cardiff the year Scherbachenko won the Singer of the World competition, I had heard much in her favour and was expecting great things from the performance. And indeed Scherbachenko does have an incredibly beautiful voice. I was, however, disappointed by her performance, or lack thereof. From the moment she walked on stage, as with Grivnov, I felt that Scherbachenko did not command the space. Looking down at her music throughout, never lifting her eyes to communicate with the audience or even the conductor, I was further confused by her pained expressions. Unless I completely misunderstood the surtitles, this is a piece of music rejoicing in the tenderness and joy of love and marriage. This did not come across. I could speculate that Scherbachenko is more at home performing opera, where she plays a part, than on the concert stage, where she essentially plays herself. I could speculate that she was unwell – she did seem a little sniffly – but what I can’t escape is an overall disappointment.

Baritone Elchin Azizov could not have been more different. His performance was confident and impressive from the outset. He gave a precise and powerful rendition of “The Mournful Iron Bells”; this was expressive, emotive singing from a performer with a fantastic voice. Azizov brought the concert full circle, ending the performance with the same high calibre of the opening.

****1