Russian National Orchestra / Pletnev, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

When the cellist Steven Isserlis mounted a festival of Sergey Taneyev's chamber music here, verdicts were mixed. Undaunted, the Russian National Orchestra, under its pianist/ conductor Mikhail Pletnev, were here on a two-concert mission to present three of Taneyev's largest works.

When the cellist Steven Isserlis mounted a festival of Sergey Taneyev's chamber music here, verdicts were mixed. Undaunted, the Russian National Orchestra, under its pianist/ conductor Mikhail Pletnev, were here on a two-concert mission to present three of Taneyev's largest works.

The first evening opened with Taneyev's Opus 1, his three-movement cantata John of Damascus (1884), with the perfervid voices of the Moscow Chamber Choir. Launched with austere inflections of the Russian requiem chant, "With the saints, O Christ", this evolved in superbly controlled slow waves of choral-orchestral counterpoint. It was clear why Taneyev has been called "the Russian Brahms", even if the work later ran to an un-Brahmsian fugal knees-up before returning to the serene gravity of its opening. An impressive achievement.

Less so, despite its ingenuity, proved Taneyev's Symphony No 4 in C minor (1898). Part of the trouble is that its opening "fate" motto of a rising fifth falling back a semitone evokes "Mars" from Holst's The Planets. And Taneyev doesn't allow us to forget it, insinuating its blighting influence into the triple-time onrush of his first movement, the Tchaikovskian love theme of the slow, and Beethovenian gambollings of the scherzo. But Pletnev's conviction was palpable, and the RNO responded with intensity. Yet, when the virtuoso Nikolai Lugansky inaugurated a lively if clangourous reading of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2, the impression of creative individuality was instant.

By Bayan Northcott

So closely is the RNO identified with Pletnev that it was a shock when it announced, at its second concert, Vladimir Jurowski's appointment as music director. Pletnev will continues as head of its collegium of conductors, but his inspirational presence on the rostrum will presumably be rare.

His programming may be less missed. His choice of Taneyev is odd as his intricate, carefully wrought scores exist at the opposite extreme from Pletnev's fabled spontaneity. The finale was Taneyev's cantata On the Reading of a Psalm. At first, the counterpointing of vivid, hyperactive orchestra against broad choral utterances held the attention, but even at this stage it seemed as though the detail might be an attempt to compensate for lack of character in the musical invention.

The impression survived the long-delayed entry of the solo vocal quartet with lines that refused to soar. Tellingly, most eloquent in the solo sections - despite the efforts of Marianna Tarassova and Edgaras Montvidas - belonged to the orchestral interludes. The choir gave of their finest, the players surpassed themselves, yet the sense had settled that Taneyev was being given a more than generous hearing.

All the more frustrating after the excitement of the first half, in which orchestra and soloist Nikolai Lugansky struck a fiery trail of sparks through Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3.

Robert Maycock

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