“.. We had just experienced something magical”
Orchestras from foreign lands are always a pull, whether they be good, bad or indifferent, and so the Usher Hall’s annual Season of international classical orchestras, along with recognisable and highly accessible programmes, is a clever marketing tool. It pulls in not just the regulars but irregular concert goers as well, and is thus to be lauded. Unfortunately there are some downsides in terms of concert etiquette.
The Stalls and the Grand Circle were full and the Upper Circle pretty empty, symptomatic of the target demographic, relatively well off retirees, a sort of silver screen for music lovers, but without the coffee and biscuits. I was pleased to see evidence of champagne being taken at the interval. Dress code was pretty smart too. Many had been out to Sunday lunch, the opposite of what I have experienced in Vienna, where the well heeled visit the Brahms Halle in the morning for a recital from members of the Philharmonie before retiring to the Imperial Hotel for torte or wurst.
However, such slightly patronising thoughts were brought up with a short, sharp shock as the players got going. Russian orchestras sound different, play differently, interpret very differently. The Russian State Symphony Orchestra (they change names so often it is hard to know who you are hearing: I remember booking to hear the Leningrad PO only to find because of political changes the programme on the night referred to them as the St Petersburg PO ), the RSSO, is officially known as the State Academic Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” and is one of Russia’s older ensembles having debuted in Moscow in 1936 under the baton of Erich Kleiber and Alexander Gauk.
The orchestra’s take on Suite and national dances from Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) almost blew me out of my seat. No gentle Sunday afternoon lollipops here. The collection was their own “cherry pick” from the ballet and covered the full gamut of well known sketches and dances, the ‘Black Swan’ being very much in evidence in the full on, almost clodhopping interpretation of all bar the opening “Scene” (Morecambe and Wise, anyone?”) as dance music as opposed to an orchestral suite, and of course this was portraying the music just as it was originally scored. For sugar plum fairies kindly look elsewhere. Aggressive almost brutal harshness with strong rhythmic intensity, incredibly strong tone, yet never harsh or crude. The Waltz, for example, was played as yearning and passionate rather than gentle and coy. Oh those Russians!
Somewhat taken out of myself I was pleased for the pause as the strings went off stage to bring on the Steinway. A couple of days ago it was in situ as the orchestra played before it was needed. Spoiled the view, and anyway, this is a big orchestra to stage.
Shostakovich is not guaranteed to bring in the casual concertgoer, but his second piano concerto is short, and an aural treat. The audience loved it. Barry Douglas, very much on form, dispatched the first movement in the composer’s tongue-in-cheek mode with easy precision, but as a movement it was unremarkable. It was in the second movement Andante that we began to drool. The strings’ opening bars are of such tangible emotion and the plaintive sadness of Douglas’s introduction and exposition got everything out of the music without overplaying. Real judgement and artistry. If you don’t know it, you can hear the composer play it himself on You Tube. In fact, you should.
The third movement by contrast is pure bravura. I was frankly amazed at Douglas’s technique, making as if nothing of these incredibly demanding Allegro passages in double time. It is to me quite extraordinary that Shostakovich thought so little of the work, notwithstanding writing it as a birthday present for his nineteen-year-old son. Perhaps composers are their own harshest critics, for this work, in microcosm, has much to commend it.
After the interval we were treated to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, an hour-long treat that never palls unlike some of the extended passages we get in symphonies of similar duration from Bruckner or even Mahler. It was particularly interesting to me having heard the first symphony (written twelve years earlier and to general opprobrium) a couple of days earlier. Here was a fully developed work deploying every part of the orchestra to full effect. The interpretation of the orchestra was much more mainstream than in the Tchaikovsky and none the worse for that. From beginning to end it was a textbook example of how the work should be played compared to the more esoteric, but entirely valid Tchaikovsky interpretation.
Notwithstanding a two hour performance the orchestra generously gave us the tactfully chosen Elgar’s Menuet de Matin as an encore.
I cannot finish without complaining about the insensitive and self-indulgent coughing throughout much of the performance. It was particularly hard to bear in the beautiful Shostakovich Andante, and the unrestrained coughing so soon after the interval could, I assume, have been despatched beforehand. Holding a rolled handkerchief to the mouth and coughing into it can greatly limit the noise of unavoidable coughing, as the Royal Festival Hall advise in all their programmes. Also, but thankfully after leaving a few seconds silence after the Andante, there was a small outbreak of applause ( … Noooooo!). There has been talk of this at the Proms this year. On this particular occasion I could not find it in me to complain, for we had just experienced something magical.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 14 October)
Visit the State Academic Symphony Orchestra (RSSO)
Go to Edinburgh49‘s Usher Hall archive.