<preform>Russian National Orchestra/Pletnev, Barbican Hall, London</br>Daniil Shtoda, Wigmore Hall, London</preform>

There's beauty and subtlety in all this misery
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The Independent Culture

Well, it's official. The nation's favourite piece of classical music is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 - or, as musicians regularly refer to it, Rach 2 (confusingly, since that's also orchestral players' shorthand for Rachmaninov's Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27). The people have spoken, recently voting the concerto into top position on Classic FM's Hall of Fame, as they have done for the last five years.

Well, it's official. The nation's favourite piece of classical music is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 - or, as musicians regularly refer to it, Rach 2 (confusingly, since that's also orchestral players' shorthand for Rachmaninov's Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27). The people have spoken, recently voting the concerto into top position on Classic FM's Hall of Fame, as they have done for the last five years.

Outside the concert hall, it's best known for its ubiquitous presence in David Lean's 1946 movie Brief Encounter, where it underpins the doomed romance between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Inside the concert hall it's known as a safe bet, guaranteed to pull the punters in whatever else, almost, is on the programme.

Which is partly why, no doubt, it appeared in the centre of a concert by the Russian National Orchestra at the Barbican on Wednesday otherwise devoted to the works of Sergey Taneyev who - I think one can safely assume - has never appeared in the Hall of Fame and is unlikely to do so.

Nikolai Lugansky played the concerto, and Mikhail Pletnev, himself a distinguished pianist, conducted. There were moments of untidiness. Pletnev tended to encourage the timpanist, which rarely proves a wise thing to do as they scarcely require encouragement. But the performance had a certain sweep, partly conveyed by the depth and lavish quality of the string tone, which was outstanding.

Lugansky has a big tone too, and sometimes deployed it rather too generously. It's one thing to make the sections where Rachmaninov has the piano accompany the orchestra interpretatively interesting, but another to refuse to accept that such passages are accompaniment at all and highlight them as the main event. Lugansky was short on poetry (vital in the slow movement), beauty of tone (as opposed to volume) and emotional warmth. His technical facility was, however, astonishing. The concerto still made a good impression, because the material is so strong and Rachmaninov's presentation of it so skilful.

Which is not the case with the Fourth Symphony of Taneyev, which ended the concert. A brilliant pianist, who gave the first Moscow performance of his composition teacher Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op 23 ("Tchaik 1"), Taneyev later established himself as an important teacher, with Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Scriabin among his many pupils. Everyone admired his prodigious knowledge, especially of counterpoint, and his absolute integrity. The sensitive Tchaikovsky even submitted his own works for his former pupil's criticism, with sometimes upsetting results.

But even this committed performance, with characteristic Russian orchestral tone colours adding authenticity aplenty, demonstrated that despite some attractive elements the Fourth's musical material is highly variable in quality, and at worst indifferent, while Taneyev's powers of symphonic construction prove to be surprisingly limited.

An altogether better case for his genuine if fitful talent was made by the first work, his early cantata St John of Damascus. With orchestral writing as sombre as it comes, and choral writing borrowing its fugal fabric from Baroque masterpieces by Bach and Handel, this setting of a Biblically inspired text shows an austere mind approaching a compositional task with an intellectual rigour not far off fervour. The result is bold, monumental and undeniably powerful.

More lesser known Russians at the Wigmore Hall last Monday, when Daniil Shtoda gave a Radio 3 lunchtime recital with accompanist Larissa Gergieva. The rising tenor star already has an appreciable reputation as a recitalist, while Gergieva - sister of conductor Valery Gergiev - is one of the leading exponents of Russian song in her own right.

The cliché about the Russian song repertory is that it essentially consists of 57 varieties of misery, further subdivided into infinite gradations of rejection, loss, nostalgia and sheer ennui. It's slightly unfair - there are some cheerier items you can draw on to shift the emotional gear should you choose - but on the whole Shtoda and Gergieva chose not.

They began with César Cui, one of the lesser lights of the nationalist school, whose songs, if conventional, are charmingly crafted. Standing formally with his hands clasped firmly before him, Shtoda demonstrated here his warm, clear and unfailingly lyrical tone. He also showed an ability to blend the words naturally and easily into the musical line, without a hint of over-emphasis. Items by Reinhold Glière and the Georgian Aleksi Machavariani confirmed Shtoda's perfected technique and immaculate phrasing.

But it was in the greatest songs here, by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, that the tenor really rose to the artistic heights. He recreated the illusory beauty of Rachmaninov's "The Isle" and floated a poignant awareness of transience in "Lilacs", while shaping a lonely arc in "Sing no more", a piece precisely redolent of a time, a place and a person never to be met with again.

The Tchaikovsky group, with its even more intimate conversational confessions and disappointments, was also outstandingly realised. The suggestion of strain in the tone in "Prayer at bedtime", an appeal for rest and peace of mind, gave it a world-weary resonance, and the steadily decreasing emotional certainty of "At the ball" was charted with the subtlest of inflections. With Gergieva fully responsive to Shtoda's vocal niceties, and adding a few of her own for him to react to, the result was a searching exploration of the darker nuances of the Russian spirit as revealed in the works of two of its most complex creative artists: Rach and Tchaik.

Anna Picard is away

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