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Russian National Orchestra

Alexander Mogilevsky
Mikhail Pletnev

March 26, 2006

Alexander Mogilevsky

Mikhail Pletnev

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We Appreciate

Tempo Tantrum

By David Bratman

The Russian National Orchestra is a post-Soviet ensemble. Founded in 1990, as the USSR was crumbling, it attracted players who wanted to be free of the restrictions of the state-run institutions. And since that sentiment described most musicians back then, it got the pick of the crop. The result is one of Russia's finest orchestras. Although it plays mostly in lesser halls and suburban venues at home, the RNO — which has been here before — got booked into Davies Symphony Hall for a Sunday evening slot in the Great Performers series, under its founder and artistic director, Mikhail Pletnev.

And what did this fine ensemble bring to play for us in the year of Shostakovich's centennial? Was it any of that Soviet-era composer's angular, unsentimental music? No, it was Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the two most lush and emotionally open of all Czarist-era composers. Even the encore was Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Waltz.

But what really matters is not how old the music is, nor how undemanding to the listener it is, but how it's played. The RNO served the music well with an even, burnished tone, along with some mightily flexible tempos. The concert had its share of sentimental beauty, but kept enough energy and pith to leave the audience invigorated.

Strings lead the way

The orchestra's character begins with the strings, which have a remarkably smooth sound but with a solidity to it that excludes overlushness. Listening to them is like sinking your head into what you think will be a soft cushion, only to find your neck supported by a comfortable but thick bolster instead. The opening piece, the standard orchestration of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise was clear and straightforward, with no affectations or string sobbing. (The program promised a wind quintet arrangement, but we were denied that treat.)

In some orchestras, string smoothness is a function of the ensemble and is not possessed by individual players. Not here. Concertmaster Alexey Bruni's solos in the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3 were as sleek as anything the ensemble as a whole played. The strings were at their best as the various sections traded notes back and forth in the scherzo or emitted tiny dry runs of notes in the development section of the opening Elegy movement.

The other instruments followed the strings' lead and blended into the sound. A fine balance was maintained throughout. Even the timpani gently underlined the music without dominating it. Of all the excellent musicians, the most striking was principal flutist Maxim Rubtsov, who turns his face up high when he plays, producing a strong but gentle sound.

The Tchaikovsky performance was equally marked by extreme tempo variation, although this was less obvious than it might have been. It was well judged and worked with the flow of the music. The players never fell out of step with each other. They must have practiced and polished their effects intensely in rehearsal and previous performances, for they could not otherwise have pulled off such extreme gear-changing moves under Pletnev's minimal baton.

Minimal gestures, maximal tempo variations

Pletnev is known for his sense of privacy and rarely gives interviews. He's like that on stage, too: quietly shuffling up to the podium, directing with the smallest of gestures, and barely acknowledging the audience (except for almost cracking a smile at the end of a huge ovation). But his interpretations are much more wildly extroverted than his conducting style, and this came through clearly in the choice of tempos. He likes to slow down for theme counterstatements, although without the sudden rubato of 19th century style. When a slow section of music is followed by a faster one, Pletnev leans into it as if the fast music is breaking out of a shell. Above all, he likes a quick, dazzling finish. In the polonaise that concludes Tchaikovsky's theme-and-variations finale, every time the composer tries to slow down for a more grandiose statement of the theme, Pletnev just goes faster still. He backed off only for the last few bars.

Something similar happened in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, an appropriate choice for the program as the composer wrote it for an American tour. This can be a huge, sloppy, garrulous concerto, but it received a taut, vigorous performance here. Soloist Alexander Mogilevsky, just 29 this year, can be powerful enough in his cadenzas but for the most part declined to thunder away or to dominate the orchestra. There are places, such as the pianist's delayed entrance in the Intermezzo movement, where the soloist often plays as if grabbing the orchestra by the scruff of the neck. Mogilevsky performed more as if he were gently suggesting to the other musicians, "Why don't we try modulating to this new key?" And they went along with it as a reasonable proposal.

None of this descended into uncertainty or windiness, nor did it prevent the finale from flying along like the wind. Mogilevsky geared up appropriately, providing adequate thunder when necessary and a nice light staccato tone in the scherzando section. The orchestra played perfect Rachmaninoff harmonies, and like the Tchaikovsky suite, the concerto came to a startling finish that retroactively cast its bright glow over the entire performance.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved