MUSIC / Moscow on the Thames: Anthony Payne hears the Russian National Orchestra's first British tour draw to a close in London

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The Independent Culture
The Russian National Orchestra, formed a mere four years ago as the first independent orchestra in its native country since 1917, has already achieved an international reputation backed by acclaimed recordings. Londoners, however, had to wait to last Sunday for the first chance to hear them live, when, at the Festival Hall, they brought their first British tour to a close with a concert under their founder and chief conductor, Mikhail Pletnev.

As with all Russian orchestras on tour, their own country's music provided the lion's share of the programme. The concert opened with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and closed with the Fourth Symphony. But there was a world of difference between the two performances, Pletnev taking a considerable time to obtain the kind of response from his players that we are used to with Russian orchestras.

The overture simply lacked the requisite high voltage in communication, brilliant colour in wind and brass, and weight of overall sonority. The rhythmic ensemble was not always all it should have been, and there was a palpable hiccup before the second subject's first entry.

If there were moments to enjoy - the strings firily attacked the music of the warring Montagues and Capulets, and the trumpets achieved a characteristically cutting edge - we were still awaiting better things by the close.

In fact, far better was to follow. It was as if Pletnev the pianist was able to do what he had not yet been able to do as conductor. In directing Weber's Konzertstuck in F minor from the keyboard, he brought a dash to the music such as is rarely heard. His piano playing was of marvellous virtuosity and wit, and in the final presto the way he avoided the pitfalls that lie waiting in nearly every bar was breathtaking.

Pletnev had placed his orchestra to the right of the piano, spreading out fanwise from the two front desks of violins to the wind and brass at the rear, giving sightlines to all his players without the need for head-turning. All rather different from the central position for pianist / conductor with the orchestra surrounding that we usually get in, say, Mozart piano concertos, but it obviously worked. The players supported with great point and style.

It was as if the orchestra had at last awoken to its task. After the interval, in Tchaikovsky's Fourth, they continued to give far more than they had seemed capable of at the outset. The panoramic structure of the first movement, with its conflicting tonal and thematic processes, was laid out in considerable splendour, and the orchestra mustered all the intensity we had missed earlier.

The brass brought great weight to their dramatic challenges and the strings continued to generate lyric intensity. Perhaps only in the massed wind textures did we continue to want a greater uniformity of attack. But this was playing of verve and the later movements were also characterised with an authentic colour and elan.

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