Feeble Russian National Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall

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Russian National Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev, Conductor
Avery Fisher Hall
New York, N. Y.
Great Performers at Lincoln Center Series

Jan. 21, 2000. New York – The fall of Soviet Bloc communism and the subsequent drying up of government subsidies stimulated the creation of several new orchestras along the lines of privately sponsored western institutions. Hungary’s Budapest Festival Orchestra was founded in 1983 by conductor Ivan Fischer and pianist Zoltan Kocsis. The Moscow-based Russian National Orchestra was created in the former Soviet Union in September 1990 by pianist Mikhail Pletnev, bringing together what promotional literature describes as “the finest musicians in the country” and “many players from the principal ranks of the major Soviet orchestras, most of them soloists in their own right.”

The need to earn hard currency and to promote their thirteen Deutsche Gramophon recordings means that the RNO has to tour constantly. Their latest American tour covered Ann Arbor, Worcester, Troy, Long Island, and Manhattan between Jan. 19 and Jan. 24. Performing six concerts in as many days is no way to get the best out of weary musicians, as the RNO’s lacklustre Jan. 21 concert at Lincoln Centre’s Avery Fisher Hall demonstrated.

Things got off to a bad start when the scheduled Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky cancelled and was replaced by French pianist Helene Grimaud, who lives conveniently close in upstate New York on her wolf farm (sic!).
Many audience members probably came expressly to hear Russians play Russian music, so the substitution of the petite French pianist was a disappointment before she played a note. In the event, she was singularly mismatched with the Slavs and her performance was a let-down. Instead of the originally programmed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, Grimaud played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a last-minute substitute, but Grimaud seemed to lack any strong interpretive ideas about this well-known concerto. At the most basic physical level, her sonority was not big enough for the relatively dry acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall. There was dead air where pedalling would have generated atmosphere. At other times she was drowned by the orchestra, though they were not playing excessively loudly. As far as one could hear, she hit all the right notes, but passion and architectural tension were lacking. The no trills and no frills Adagio left one cold. The Allegro was dutifully dispatched. Both movements ended with a whimper, not a bang. The audience applauded between the first and second movements, then seemed surprised that there was more to come.

It must be said that the orchestral playing was also routine. Pletnev seemed unable to animate his weary band. At intermission someone joked that we might have been better off with Pletnev at the piano and Grimaud conducting.

The rest of the program was much of a muchness. Tchaikovsky’s minor symphonic ballad Le Voyevode, Op. 78 and Scriabin’s four minute Reverie, Op. 24, were both atmospheric trifles which at least gave the strings a chance to shine. The violin section sounded silky and resonant, providing perhaps the only touch of “typical” Russian colour in the whole program. Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 54, the so-called Poem of Ecstacy, was served cold and ungarnished, without mystery, eroticism or romance. A few crescendos gave brief thrills.

While the RNO deserves credit for merely surviving under the current difficult conditions in Russia, there is no denying that even second-rate Western orchestras play this repertoire with more finesse, technique and intelligence. Great music is produced by musicians who are well-trained, well paid, and well-rested. The RNO spends more time on the road than at home in Moscow (this season it performs only 11 concerts in Russia compared to 27 abroad). It sounded like the hectic pace was taking its toll.

Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments? [email protected]).

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