Symphony No.2 in B minor
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35
Denis Matsuev (piano)
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 29 September, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
A Russian orchestra playing Russian music is always something to savour, and the Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov offerings were given wonderful accounts of what are passionate and sweeping works that are often be played apologetically or sickly-sweet.
Alexander Borodin was a part-time composer: his ‘day-job’ was as a very good research organic chemist, contributing to the field quite widely. What little time he found to compose he certainly put to good use. His Second Symphony found the orchestra in enlivened form. The pounding chords that open the work were given great thrust, though towards the end of the things may have been laid on a bit too thick. The quieter moments, such as in the Andante, were never in any danger of being undermined because of the care and attention of Vladimir Fedoseyev, the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra’s long-serving conductor. The horn solo here was beautifully played; it is all too easy for this to go awry as it has to be played quietly over soft strings. The deep, and meaningful, climax led in to an uplifting finale that was restrained enough to allow it to bloom.
The Siberian pianist Denis Matsuev played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The phrase “a sledge-hammer to crack a nut” could well have been invented for this performance given Matsuev was not going to allow the quieter moments to obscure the ‘big’ Rachmaninov. A lot of the piece’s subtlety was lost, except, surprisingly, the famous Eighteenth Variation, which was as thrusting as could be hoped for, but never overdone. In other places, though, Matsuev seemed keener on banging out the notes (always the right ones in the right place), rather than any attempt to explore the contrasts Rachmaninov requires. The ‘Dies Irae’ (Day of Judgement) theme, which acts as a counterpoint to the Paganini theme, never seemed to occupy Matsuev in the early Variations and the sense of forward propulsion as the end was sighted became a brewing fight between soloist and orchestra, neither wanting to lose. In the rather intimate confines of Cadogan Hall, this was all quite overwhelming.
The great success of the evening was found in one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s last purely orchestral works, Scheherazade. (He would devote a lot of his time to opera.) What a triumph of story-telling, orchestral ensemble and individual playing this was, especially from the orchestra’s principal cellist, whose solos were extremely well judged and very affecting. Those from the principal violin, representing the Sultana, were equally adept. In the climactic sections, such as the fourth movement’s storm that causes the shipwreck, the sense of fantasy that should pervade the piece was in danger of being undermined, but this did serve the purpose of evoking the chaos of the story. The string sound had an edge that allows Romantic Russian music to never become syrupy.
It was not surprising that Tchaikovsky, in the form of the ‘Spanish Dance’ from Swan Lake, would feature as an encore but the second one, ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, seemed wholly out of place; the former skipped and jumped along at a terrific pace – a real joy – whereas the latter, seemingly trying the same feat (!), was unnecessary.