Review: Russian National Orchestra

Russian National Orchestra
Time Out

The five-star rating is reserved for a truly exceptional performance. Everything from the orchestra’s blend and tone colour to each soloist’s accuracy and phrasing has to be just right. Too much of anything is indulgent, and too little leaves you wanting. Mikhail Pletnev’s concert this Wednesday was the perfect middle ground, and a certifiable five-star performance.

The Russian native is a renaissance man – consummate conductor, prolific composer and one of the best pianists of our time. In 1990, just after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Pletnev founded his own independent orchestra with the help of his friend Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union. The Russian National Orchestra (RNO)–not to be confused with either the National Philharmonic of Russia or the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra – quickly warmed to international critics and was courted by major record labels. In 2004, the RNO’s recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf won a Grammy, making it the first Russian group to clinch the coveted award.

Popular demand has made the RNO one of Europe’s most travelled orchestras. This summer, the ensemble embarks on an Asian tour, beginning in Hong Kong on June 24 and going on to spend July in Japan and South Korea. Fans in Hong Kong know a musical treat when they see one – tickets sold out faster than any other show in recent memory.

The Wednesday concert – the first of two – began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24. Pletnev put on his soloist hat and placed his deputy, Vladislav Lavrik, on the conductor’s podium. When the 58-year-old sat down in front of the Steinway Grand (in a chair instead of the usual piano bench), he looked tired and disengaged. His music, however, was anything but.

The second half of the evening was taken up by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5. Pletnev, seemingly more energized after the intermission, put on his maestro hat. Despite being the world’s foremost authority on Tchaikovsky’s symphonic cycle, he let the music speak for itself. This time it was the RNO that did most of the talking, delivering all four movements with a beautiful round tone that transported the audience to a 19th century European gilded hall – the strings were oceanic and the brass thunderous. That, together with the woodwinds’ chirps and cheers, was like Mother Nature’s own chorus.

The andante cantabile second movement was the symphony’s crown jewel. Lead horn player Igor Makarov started with an affecting – if not slightly wobbly – solo passage, before the woodwinds took over and developed the theme. Principal flautist Maxim Rubtsov, who boasts a successful solo career of his own, deserved a special mention for his dynamic stage presence and velvety lines. By the end of the evening, the audience was thoroughly blown away and their hands were throbbing with pain after multiple curtain calls. Music lovers certainly got what they had come for, but no doubt they still wished Pletnev and his troupe would stay a few extra days to play, say, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique or Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3. Somebody should start a petition.
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