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Review: Moscow Philharmonic

One of the most celebrated orchestras in the world, the Moscow Philharmonic under its guest conductor, Yuri Botnari, opened The Boldfield 2019-20 orchestral season at Cambridge Corn Exchange on Sunday afternoon.

This orchestra must surely comprise some of the very best musicians in the Russian State. It was a pure joy to listen to and the perfect vehicle for its all-Russian programme of music by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

Moscow Philharmonic (18758440)
Moscow Philharmonic (18758440)

Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave in B flat minor, Opus 31 (1876) immediately proclaimed the kind of quality we could expect from this talented ensemble. A brief but stirring narrative work, commissioned from Tchaikovsky to celebrate the victory of the Serbs and their Russian allies over the Ottomans in the 1870s, Marche Slave is one of those pieces of music we all know but probably can’t put a name to (a bit like the Troika from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije we hear on the radio each Christmas). The Philharmonic’s delivery was powerful, brassy, inspiriting and, above all patriotic. The Russian Imperial anthem made an appearance (twice) as it also would at the conclusion of the 1812 Overture few years later.

Yuri Botnari then escorted Romanian-born pianist, Alexandra Dariescu, to the platform for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18 (1901). With her lovely smile and warm personality she cut an elegant figure in a silver satin gown, and some members of the audience may have remembered how she graced West Road’s brand new Steinway Concert Grand about 5 years ago with a truly astonishing Grieg A minor Concerto as the piano’s first outing. Her Rachmaninov 2 on Sunday was an equally virtuosic performance of this wonderful composition.

Alexandra Dariescu - Pianist. (18758456)
Alexandra Dariescu - Pianist. (18758456)

How was it possible to resist the drama of those opening chords, and the meltingly beautiful strain that emerged from them? Or the floating melodies of the 2nd movement in its remote key? Who could fail to marvel at the power of the composer’s creativity as the soloist burst into the brisk, slightly military opening of the finale with its unforgettable tune? Alexandra powerfully evoked the emotional message of the 2nd concerto which represents perhaps what the composer had truly within him, with no sign of those adjustments he sometimes made later to the requirements of new musical tastes.

Alexandra Dariescu exudes a palpable joy at the ability of her playing to touch an audience, and reflects a refreshingly humble gratitude for the gift she’s been given to achieve it. It was almost impossible to get her to take any of the applause for herself. But to our delight the rapturous reception persuaded her to give us an encore. This was Bacchanale by Constantin Silvestri, one of those pieces (the similar ‘etincelles’ by Moszkowski, Horowitz’s beloved encore, comes to mind) which leaves an audience wondering how such a thing could possibly be composed, let alone performed.

The final work was Symphony No. 10, Opus 93 (1953) by Shostakovich. In some ways this made an appropriate complement to Rachmaninov’s. The 2nd piano concerto represented the composer’s release from a long period of creative sterility that had been caused by the failure of his First Symphony’s premiere. Equally, Shostakovich’s 10th symphony reflects the composer’s freedom from the prohibitive restrictions that had been imposed upon him by the Soviets during the Stalinist era. Stalin died in the same year that the symphony was completed.

Alexandra Dariescu (18758453)
Alexandra Dariescu (18758453)

The 10th is a lengthy and complex work. It’s full of shattering climaxes which involve the entire resources of the orchestra, but there are also moments of quiet lyricism, and the Moscow Philharmonic was more than equal to the delivery of its range. Freedom is the essential message, and in the second movement in particular one feels an ecstatic sense of release when the genie seems at last to have been well and truly let out of the bottle.

Sunday’s audience was loud in its applause, and the orchestra obliged with 2 encores – one a captivating performance of Shostakovich’s ‘Romance’ from ‘The Gadfly Suite’ (including the beautiful violin solo from Concertmaster, Dmitry Shorokhov), and the other, again by Shostakovich, his playful ‘Polka’ from the Age of Gold Suite.

Who better than the Moscow Philharmonic to expose us to the greatness of so much Russian music? And who better to start the very attractive new season at The Corn Exchange which continues with the Philharmonia Orchestra on 1 November with works by Sibelius, Prokofiev (Piano Concerto No. 2 - Nikolai Lugansky), and Tchaikovsky (Excerpts from Swan Lake), all under the baton of dynamic Finnish conductor Santuu-Matias Rouvali? Can’t wait.


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