PROMS Russian National Orchestra / Pletnev

Nicholas Williams applauds an evening of Slavonic excellence at the Royal Albert Hall
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The Independent Culture
The capacity crowd at Thursday's early-evening Prom clearly knew a few good reasons to be there. The Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev counted for one or two of them, depending on whether you hear their inspired musicianship as indivisible or a team effort.

Michael Collins playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto on basset clarinet, as first intended, was an added attraction. Yet another, for Slavophiles, was the chance to hear a triptych of Romantic tone-poems, rarely found singly, let alone together, played by an orchestra that might have been specially formed to capture the nuance of their style.

Anatol Lyadov is best remembered as the man who failed to complete a Diaghilev ballet called The Firebird. But he was also a mini-master of the Russian folklore style, a flame kept alive in Baba-Yaga, The Enchanted Lake and Kikimora. Taken together, they make a balanced suite that may not connect with our deepest emotions, yet weaves spells of comedy and mystery. The pictorial spirit is close to that of Dukas in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and is of an equally high order. The somnolent chords and drifting melody of The Enchanted Lake make for some of the best aquatic music to be found before water became the favourite medium of 20th-century musical impressionists. Stravinsky himself must have kept the opening measures of Kikimora in mind when writing his own "Berceuse" for The Firebird.

The orchestral strings maintained their impeccable discipline for the Mozart, a pleasant outing in authenticity that replaced the frothiness of the standard clarinet with the older instrument's burbling, caramel timbre. Authenticity in a more dramatic aspect was to be found when the full orchestra returned to perform Shostakovich's 10th Symphony in a reading of rare intensity, heightened, it seemed, by the sharply national flavour these players quite naturally deliver.

Style being a matter of detail, it could be heard in the minutiae of their playing. Pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons in the first movement took their parts like well-prepared actors. The hollow ending, piccolos keening above the distant thunder of timpani, led seamlessly to an orgiastic scherzo where evil strode fearlessly through the land. Resonant brass, ranged left for power beside the double-basses, combined balance and accuracy. The third-movement horn call seemed aurally perfect, at least from the oddly placed critics' enclave due west of the conductor's ear. At the tempestuous height of the finale, trumpets and trombones belted out the composer's password, DSCH. In the hush that followed, someone applauded prematurely. Distracting, of course; but, with playing like this, it was difficult to blame them.

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