Following Monday’s unengaging performance, I did not have high hopes for the Russian National Orchestra’s second concert at the Enescu Festival. The eclectic programme of Ginastera, Enescu, MacMillan and Tchaikovsky looked enticing on paper, but it took a few pieces before the orchestra and conductor Horia Andreescu seemed to know what they were doing.

Vadim Repin, Horia Andreescu and the Russian National Orchestra © Cătălina Filip
Vadim Repin, Horia Andreescu and the Russian National Orchestra
© Cătălina Filip

The concert got off to a rocky start, with a rhythmically precarious performance of the suite from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia. One of few ballets to be set among Argentine ranchers, Estancia is full of South American traditional dances, at times complex rhythms and catchy melodies. The rhythms in “Los trabajadores agricolas” (The farm workers) certainly seemed to trip up the RNO, the first and second violins lagging behind each other for most of the movement. Things calmed down considerably in the next movement, the “Danza del trigo” (Wheat Dance), with a beautifully played flute solo. Still, even here, the violins could not quite agree on high notes. Rhythmical challenges again came to a head in the final two movements: the burly “Los peones de hacienda” (The Cattlemen) suffered from underpowered horns, and the orchestra sounded as if they were hanging on for dear life in the final “Malambo”.

Fortunately, things picked up when soloist Vadim Repin took to the stage, first for Enescu’s charming, if unassuming, Aria and Scherzino for violin and string orchestra, followed by the Romanian première of Sir James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto. MacMillan’s Violin Concerto is a work bursting with musical ideas, the attention of the soloist and orchestra never staying anywhere for too long. The first movement, entitled “Dance”, is a flurry of musical ideas, the violin energetically whirring above the orchestra. At times, it felt as if Repin was trying to escape the rhythmical strictures of the orchestra – sometimes they went along with him, but they always put him back in his place.

Vadim Repin © Cătălina Filip
Vadim Repin
© Cătălina Filip

MacMillan, who was in attendance, had dedicated the concerto to Repin, but it was also written in memory of his late mother Ellen; this memory was felt most clearly in the tender lyricism of the second movement, “Song”. Although calmer, it had the same restlessness as “Dance” – the lyricism would become increasingly painful, before collapsing into brief glimpses of childish joy. The final movement, “Song and Dance” combined the energy of the first movement with the melodiousness of the second, introducing some puzzling spoken German in the orchestra. There was no stopping Repin, who was playing with relentless, often frenetic energy, culminating in a ferocious cadenza.

Following the quite competently played MacMillan, the orchestra sank their teeth into Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor, showing where their true strengths lie. From the opening clarinet solo, it was clear that the RNO was on much safer ground than they had been previously. Although the opening was taken quite fast, it never sounded rushed, and meaty lower strings gave just enough support to get the movement going. Andreescu never let the orchestra get too loud in the first movement, instead pacing the dynamics so as to not lessen the impact of the later, much louder movements. The orchestra, the strings especially, played with a full-bodied, robust sound, even though intonation still faltered now and again. Still, they presented a much more unified front than they did during the Ginastera.

Horia Andreescu © Cătălina Filip
Horia Andreescu
© Cătălina Filip

Things took a slight turn for the worse with the horn solo of the second movement, which sounded rushed and lacking in musicality. Luckily, the deliciously honeyed cellos more than made up for it when they took over. Throughout the symphony, the gloriously sweeping melodies carried the music forth, punctuated by impressively loud outbursts from the brass. The waltz of the third movement had a sense of graceful grandeur about it, the orchestra playing with a balletic lightness, replaced by something much weightier in the gloriously triumphant last movement.

With their more than competently played Tchaikovsky, the RNO showed that they can play well when and if they want to. They further proved that in the encore, the joyously fast Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila.