Edinburgh Festival Music: Russian National Orchestra Usher Hall

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The Independent Culture
It would be hard to imagine two concerts more different than those of the Rusian National Orchestra this week in Edinburgh. On Tuesday, Tchaikovsky's weak First Symphony, weakly played, with Natalia Gutman going through the motions of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto; on Wednesday, a mind- bending performance of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony.

"It sounded like a different orchestra", somebody said. But the point was that it did not; it ws recognizably the same, with the same grainy, hollow woodwind ensemble, the same thick and foggy strings, the same veiled horn, with a slight tremor in the tone, the same bleating oboe. Yet on Wednesday there was fire, overwhelming power, almost maniac conviction, and all the faults became virtues.

The Tchaikovsky symphony needs to be played with evangelical fervour. Yet the conductor, Mikhail Pletnev, seemed to be avoiding exaggeration, taking the scherzo at a moderate tempo that ironed out its rhythmic tricks. The finale, with its queasy wind and confused fugato, seemed merely dull.

The concerto was controlled rather than charismatic; Gutman's tone was urgent, intense rather than warm, and she commenced the moderato in a thin, plaintive sonority that seemed to come from outer space. All of this might have stressed the obliqueness of this queer work, but the bravura was delivered squarely and routinely, the long narrative of the cadenza circling aimlessly. The piece lacked melody and atmosphere; it seemed a dry husk of itself.

The following evening, all was changed. The orchestra's dense string tone made the most of the symphony's sombre opening, with a bleak clarinet lament that hovered coldly around the throat tones of the instrument. The brass - never macho or overpowering in this orchestra - threw out relentless challenges, leading to a climax of incandescent high violins like a prison searchlight.

The scherzo was quite staggering, a ferocious night-ride in a dizzying tempo, underlined by a virtuosic side drum. In the third movement, the slightly tinny sound of the wind seemed suddenly right for this work; at last the whole ensemble acquired breadth and maturity which the hectic finale could not dispel. This was a totally uncompromising performance, never merely sensuous or elegant, devastating in its cruel vision.

Each concert began with a Haydn symphony. The second of these, No. 104 in D, was more urbane and confident than No. 93 in the first concert. Somehow, Wednesday was altogether a happier day for the Russian orchestra.