Most Westerners know two things about Kazakhstan: it has vast oil and gas reserves, and Sacha Baron Cohen makes relentless fun of it. A third piquant fact is that this land as big as Europe has a population equivalent to that of Greater London, but there's also a cultural bullet-point in the equation: music.
Kazakhstan is traditionally a nomad society whose lute-playing bards honed the art of poetic improvisation, but when the Soviets carved it out of the great landmass of Turkestan they imposed their culture on it, which in classical terms meant the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. In 1944 they founded a conservatory in Alma Ata, modelled on the great music-teaching institutes of Moscow and Leningrad, with the result that Kazakh musicians became as good as the best in Russia. And it was students of that conservatory, in what is now Almaty, who took the stage at the Barbican.
The first work of the evening, a symphonic suite by Tles Kazhgaliev, is based on traditional Kazakh stories. But this 20th-century composer seems to have been almost entirely Westernised: the Kazakh imagery purportedly filling his suite was drowned by echoes of Poulenc's "Les biches", Milhaud's "Le boeuf sur le toit", and Thirties Hollywoodery.
With Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto, however, the players came into their own. The pianist was Jania Aubakirova, a Kazakh graduate of Moscow State Conservatory and now principal of this one, who delivered a formidable performance. You could hear the wind over the Steppes in her opening melody, and for the next 50 minutes she did justice to Rachmaninov's towering edifices of sound.
In this work, and Brahms's First Symphony, which followed it, the youthful orchestra played in a way that few other conservatoire ensembles could emulate. If there were occasional ragged moments in the brass, the woodwind more than made up for it, while the strings delivered a warm, rich sound.
Their French conductor Christophe Mangou is one of a growing band of Western musicians now working in this rapidly emerging country, and laying Baron Cohen's ghost to rest.
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