It's 11 years since the viola virtuoso Yuri Bashmet formed a string ensemble that left its first London audiences transfixed. At the time, the Moscow Soloists seemed to open up new possibilities for orchestral playing. They are still there to be taken up. On this latest visit, each section played with a single-mindedness unknown to British orchestras. At times, individuals matched one another so closely that their combined resonance sounded amplified. Yet nobody appeared to be sending spies, and the attendance was smallish, apart from a strong showing by the resident Russian community.
Highest point was the arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet that Mahler made for string orchestra. The way this group plays is just right for such a risky enterprise, and, for once, it sounded like a quartet writ large, with all the flexibility and unanimity, and even more of the pace. The big difference from chamber playing was that it was a conductor's performance, replacing a quartet's collaborative give-and-take with a view from above. Different but successful, and while Bashmet's conducting tended to make subsidiary detail too prominent, including some of the viola lines, it was always interesting detail. Some features, such as gradual crescendos, are beyond the powers of a quartet and only possible when controlled by one musician.
It was tempting to wonder how this thrilling performance would have changed if Bashmet had directed it as a member of the viola section. He did take up his instrument to lead most of the concert, but always from a solo part, so the question remained unanswered. Anyway, the rest of the evening wasn't on the same level. It was a programme made up of music by gay icons (Schubert and Britten) and high camp. Even the bouquet at the end was pink. No problem about that, just that the music can't have been so involving for the orchestra to play.
For instance, making a viola concerto out of a Paganini quartet with guitar took away the original's most distinctive and engaging features - a quirky viola role, and the guitar itself - and substituted a conventional, well-behaved classical orchestra complete with horns and oboes. Apart from the first violins, they had nothing much to do, and the piece became a rather slender vehicle for the solo viola, played with Bashmet's usual deftness but getting little more than a polite reception. The Britten pieces had the unexpected result of making the composer's teenage Portraits sound more adventurous and expressive than Lachrymae, the viola-led fantasy on lute music from his maturity.
Weber's Introduction and Hungarian Rondo made a joyous end to the official concert, before three encores, including a polka by Shostakovich and a Stravinsky aria with the viola as soloist, took camp to its most rarefied heights.