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August 21, 2013 6:04 pm
For Russian musicians perpetually touring the world with the same handful of symphonic favourites, you might think it difficult, if not impossible, to inject each performance with an element of spontaneity and surprise. No matter how much national pride is involved, after 100 Rachmaninov Second Piano Concertos you can’t blame anyone for treating the notes as predictable. But that is precisely the challenge for musicians of any nationality – to recast great music each time so that audiences listen afresh, rather than relapsing into the memory of a TV advert or CD performance with which the music has become associated.
It seems remarkable, then, that Russian ensembles achieve this feat better than most western counterparts, as the Russian National Orchestra and its conductor Mikhail Pletnev proved in the first of their two Edinburgh International Festival programmes, comprising the Rachmaninov concerto and Glazunov’s ballet score The Seasons. That gives pause for thought. Given the moves towards a market economy since 1990, when the privately funded RNO was formed, and the slide in standards of musical education in Russia, you would assume some loss of “soul” in their music-making. Not so. The RNO’s performance had finesse, élan, colour and, yes, pride.
The soloist in the Rachmaninov was Nikolai Lugansky, who has played the piece many times with western orchestras. Here, with his compatriots, he sounded both more relaxed and more imposing, reconciling those apparently contradictory qualities of big sound and light touch. His reading may have lacked the sense of struggle and soul-searching that lies at the heart of a great performance, but it built an impressive head of steam in each of the three movements and never sentimentalised the music. Pletnev’s accompaniments were all-of-a-piece: despite his unemotional gestures, his orchestra always managed to animate the music’s depths as well as its restless surface.
The Glazunov was pure, unadulterated bliss – a make-believe paradise of devil-may-care waltzes, swirling cross-currents of sound, snowflakes in music, the occasional glimpse of melancholy, but above all tunes, tunes, tunes, ravishingly orchestrated and lovingly despatched. Pletnev’s tight rhythmic control kept the performance à point, and the RNO’s dark timbres and euphonious brass did the rest.
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