Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
Seen and Heard (UK)

By Glyn Pursglove

Chloe Hanslip (violin), Moscow State Symphony Orchestra / Pavel Kogan (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12.5.2010 (GPu)
Borodin, Polovtsian Dances
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto
Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherezade

Pavel Kogan has been Music director and Chief Conductor of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra since May 1989. The length of mutual experience doubtless underpins and makes a major contribution to the sense that this is an immensely well-drilled and efficient orchestra, an orchestra who bring a sense of certainty to their performances under Kogan’s baton. That familiarity has, of course, dangers as well as rewards, and knowing that one was to hear them in a programme of music with which all concerned must have been familiar for many years, there was some fear that we would hear a concert of a relatively routine nature, though no doubt performed at a high level of technical competence. For the most part, such fears were misplaced.

The glowing tone of the upper strings and the splendidly expressive playing of the whole woodwind section were striking; above – or more strictly beneath – everything else was the remarkable rhythmic impetus and harmonic weight provided by an arc of eight tremendous double-bassists who seemed to phrase as one and to constitute a kind of high-quality engine for the larger machine of the orchestra.

Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances were full of sinuous touches and there were some (thoroughly sophisticated) faux-barbarisms and aggressive rhythms, those basses (and the tuba of Vladimir Starkov) provided a solid but richly flexible foundation for everything else. The familiar melody of the first dance soared beguilingly and in the second the woodwinds were grainily ‘oriental’; in the third the rhythms were irresistible, the descending four-note motif articulated perfectly and persuasively, the implications of barely contained wildness very forceful; the final dance built to a vehemently frenzied climax. This wasn’t perhaps the most subtly characterised performance of the dances that one has ever heard, but for controlled power and rich orchestral colour it would have taken some beating.

Similar qualities characterised the performance of Scheherezade which closed the programme, though there was, fittingly, much greater subtlety in Kagan’s control of dynamics and, in the solo contributions of violinist Gayk Kazayan there was clarity and precision in the service of some beautifully voiced melodic playing. In The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, for my taste Kogan perhaps relished Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral colours at the cost of a certain loss of momentum; The Story of the Kalendar Prince was evocatively played, the work of the strings fleet and exciting, that of bassoonist Viacheslav Sazykin attractively fluid. The strings were at their most ravishingly lush in the opening of The Young Prince and the Young Princess and Kogan’s reading offered some pleasantly witty pointing too; the final movement was properly tumultuous, the strings and the brass thoroughly vivacious, the double basses startling in their attack. The whole work was played with a real sense of symphonic magnitude, with a sense that for all its pictorial and narrative dimensions this is more than merely illustrative music.

In between these two orchestral showpieces came a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring the admirable Chloe Hanslip. Though still only 21, Ms. Hanslip has for some years been demonstrating how sure a technique she has, and what a rapidly developing musical intelligence. She seems now to be approaching something like maturity as a soloist. Certainly this was an impressive and satisfying performance of one of the canonical concertos. Hanslip played it with consistent beauty of tone and with a lyrical expressiveness that was never merely self-serving. She was helped by Kogan’s (and the orchestra’s) mastery of the score; details one hadn’t always noticed achieved a new (and unforced) prominence, especially in the opening allegro moderato, where the perfect balancing of the orchestral forces opened windows on to often neglected parts of the score. This was, in some respects, a particularly intimate reading of the work, in which there was a pleasing sense of conversation between soloist and orchestra, the two contributing to a coherence of musical argument not always achieved in performances of this work. A highspot, having said that, was Hanslip’s playing of the first movement cadenza – I suspect that before too many years have gone by she will produce, if she so chooses, some fine performances of the unaccompanied violin repertoire. In the Finale the rhythms were as taut as one might desire, and without any undue exaggeration the idiom of Russian dance was everywhere dominant.