Russian National Orchestra impresses, from Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff

03.01.13
Russian National Orchestra
Palm Beach Daily News

By Ken Keaton

Concerto in memory of Van Cliburn touching.

The house was packed and enthusiastic when the Russian National Orchestra with pianist Barry Douglas delivered an all-Russian concert Wednesday as part of the Kravis Center’s Regional Arts Concert Series.

The orchestra is young by world standards, founded in 1990 in Moscow. And conductor Vasily Petrenko is young as conductors go, born in 1976, but he has amassed an impressive resume. He has been the principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra since 2006, and his guest appearances, including this one, are frequent and cover four continents.

First was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. If one judges from this performance, Petrenko and the Russian National Orchestra favor the Dionysian. Sounds, particularly from the wind soloists and the concertmaster, were wildly intense and penetrating, almost primitive. The timpanist seemed to be channeling Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Yet Petrenko kept things in balance, even through one of the fastest finales this reviewer has ever experienced. It was thrilling.

Next was the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, with Douglas. There was a sober moment, when Douglas took the microphone to announce the death of Van Cliburn at age 78. The tall, lanky Texan gained international fame as the first non-Russian to win the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, at the height of the Cold War. Douglas touchingly dedicated Van’s Concerto to his memory.

From the start, with his massive, bronze chords and blazing arpeggios, it was evident that this would be a “pedal-to-the-metal” performance. Perhaps it lacked subtlety, but this is not a subtle work. It is unabashedly romantic, virtuosic, with overflowing warmth and emotion. Even the contrasting presto in the slow movement bubbled like a pot of water at a hard boil. And the finale, though not as fast as Horowitz and Toscanini, was still a joyous romp that brought the audience to their feet.

But the highlight was the second half, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. This is a real showpiece for orchestral virtuosity, with all the Dionysian intensity of the other works, but held in just enough check by Petrenko to avoid a descent into chaos. Though most famed as a pianist, Rachmaninoff was easily Tchaikovsky’s equal as an orchestrator, and nearly as fine as Rimsky-Korsakov.

The opening, sinister march used a variety of solo winds, with their same primitive intensity that had energized the Korsakov — and included an alto saxophone and bass clarinet.

The string melody was so touching as to bring tears to the eye.

The second movement was a waltz, as wild and unchained as Ravel’s; and the final movement incorporated both the haunting plainchant Dies Irae and several melodies from Russian liturgy. It was a real tour-de-force, a vehicle for a virtuoso orchestra and a conductor who knows how to bring out the best from his players.