When a Russian orchestra plays Russian repertoire, you have to allow for difference. The unusual rawness of the brass section, the sense of rough edges deliberately left on and the absence of suavity can come as a shock to ears used to the politer sounds produced by orchestras closer to home. It is no bad thing and we might be persuaded that what we’re hearing is more authentic, Borodin and Tchaikovsky spoken in their own accent. Ultimately, though, it comes down to personal taste and if you’ve been weaned on smoother ‘Karajanised’ interpretations, the Russian domestic product won’t be for you.

Vladimir Fedoseyev © Oleg Nachinkin
Vladimir Fedoseyev
© Oleg Nachinkin

This programme by the touring Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra (previously known as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra until a 1993 name-change) featured works by the aforementioned Russians bookending Sibelius' Violin Concerto, played by Jennifer Pike – a ‘Finnish Sandwich’ as it was waggishly described. Borodin’s Polovstian Dances, played without benefit of a choral contribution, was a tougher, less ethereal proposition than it usually is, with tumbling percussion to the fore and the syrup only sparingly applied to the “Gliding Dance of the Maidens”. The solo clarinet introducing the theme of the final dance was splendidly idiomatic and struck just the right note of the different in a well-known piece, so the frantic cavortings of the final dance struck the listener with the force of the unfamiliar.  

It made for a bracing opening but the Sibelius quickly changed the mood. For much of its length, this concerto is an introverted piece, with the orchestra reined right back behind the solo instrument. Being placed in this aural spotlight for so long can be an exposing task for the violinist who must retain interest while keeping things moving, the fireworks saved for the finale – the famous “polonaise for polar bears” – which is more of an equal match between soloist and orchestra. Pike’s performance was appropriately intense and introspective, if a little short on the poetry one always hopes to find in this marvellous, though difficult, concerto. The first two movements, which carry the work's emotional weight, were beautifully played but lacked the aura of regretful sweetness that you look for in the finest performances, so that the finale did not bring the sense of emotional release it might otherwise have done. For all that, Pike gave us many fine moments, some very poised playing in the introduction and a meticulously prepared account of the central Adagio; my only regret was the absence of that last degree of lyricism.

Vladimir Fedoseyev has been this orchestra’s Chief Conductor since 1974 and he must have conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony more times than anyone can remember; not that you’d know it from this thrilling performance, which was anything but routine. Beginning with the somnolent tread of the brass stating the keynote theme that will pervade the entire symphony, to the feverish traversal of the same theme that dominates the final movement, this was a reading of fiery abandon and reckless risk-taking. The energy conjured up in the Allegro was maintained in the Andante cantabile second movement, which for once did not hang fire, but burned with a restless energy held in check: the main subject was excellently articulated by the woodwind. There followed a rollicking account of the Allegro moderato, a waltz which, it has been argued, has no place in a symphony, but Fedoseyev and his forces decisively refuted that charge, making it almost one with the the Allegro vivace finale, which fairly took the roof off Leeds Town Hall.

So, an evening of almost visceral thrills and excitement: almost enough to make up for a relative lack of poetry.

***11