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S & H Concert Review

Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Demidenko (pf), Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev. RFH, Tuesday, October 7th, 2003 (CC).



Congratulations to whoever programmed this concert. Instead of more obviously popular fare, we were given Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto, Mussorgsky’s Prelude to Act 1 of Khovanshchina and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Each work could have been substituted by a pot-boiler by its composer to bring in the crowds. Instead, what as on offer was a chance to hear an authentic Russian orchestra on not so well trodden home turf.

Vladimir Fedoseyev has been at the helm of this orchestra since 1974. His predecessors include Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Alexander Gauk and Nikolai Golovanov. Quite a tradition. And one we should respect: so why were late-comers allowed in as the baton came down, disturbing Khovanshchina’s magical Prelude to Act 1 (‘Dawn on the Moscow River’)? RFH policy needs looking at here, or is this part of a misguided London-wide trend? (similar disturbances occurred during this year’s Proms).

The orchestra’s sound is intrinsically Russian, from the acidic oboe (no bad thing) to the subtly vibratoed solo horn. The lower registers had a fair amount of heft, due in no small measure to the orchestral layout: double-basses were positioned all along the back of the stage, behind the woodwind. Melodies emerged as impassioned (there was also some glorious clarinet playing at a true pianissimo). A gripping beginning.

Nice to hear Nikolai Demidenko on form, also. Mr Demidenko plays a Fazioli piano, quite bright of sound and seemingly lacking the depth of a Steinway. Certainly it was quite harsh in the upper registers. Despite this, Demidenko delivered a strong interpretation of Rachmaninov’s early masterpiece (written in 1891 when the composer was but a teenager, revised in 1917). Demidenko has the iron fingers so necessary for any medallist in the Tchaikovsky competition, and is capable of remarkable definition at speed. He is also able to indulge in much interior musing (a great amount of care was lavished on the Andante) as well as raising a smile with his ‘laughing’ staccati in the finale. Agility is no problem for him. A particular highlight was the first movement cadenza, in which Demidenko highlighted Rachmaninov’s debt to Chopin. The orchestral layout paid dividends in the total clarity of the double-bass pizzicati (so easily lost usually). This was a most persuasive performance – only an over-projected right hand at the opening of the slow movement detracted.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is woefully neglected (perhaps he should have given it a number…). There is no doubting Fedoseyev’s advocacy, though. Throughout this performance, it was impossible to doubt the stature of Tchaikovsky’s Byron-inspired masterpiece. The dynamic range was hugely impressive (does Tchaikovsky mark fffff for one climax in the first movement?) Expressive but never indulgent, the ebb and flow seemed like a miraculous, fervent outpouring. This was due in no small part to Fedoseyev’s choice of tempi, which made the entire first movement seem like one huge, natural progression. The Scherzo hinted at a Russian Mendelssohn (perhaps a shade lighter would have sealed the comparison) while the third movement, marked ‘Pastoral’, was a peaceful idyll only slightly marred by some scrappy upper strings. The finale, grimly determined yet with great verve, was noteworthy particularly for its rhythmic expertise: off-beat accents from the brass were preternaturally together. Grandeur and dark Tchaikovskian angst made this an overwhelmingly powerful experience.

If they did an encore, this reviewer does not know. To disturb the effect of Manfred would have been a sin.

Colin Clarke



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