NOVOSIBIRSK RUSSIAN PHILHARMONIC AT THE CORN EXCHANGE
The Russians are coming. In fact they had already arrived in force in Cambridge: as the Novosibirsk Philharmonic powered into town for a blast of Siberian style musical muscularity. Led by maestro Thomas Sanderling, world famous conductor and friend of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, this orchestra might be international but they are Russian to their core.
More Russian concerts are in the pipeline for Cambridge audiences but they would have to double down on forceful determination to approach the distinctive sound of this tremendous ensemble from the Siberian Steppes.
They are a breathtaking collection of musicians. Twelve cellos, more than forty violins and violas, ten double basses and a brass and percussion section ready to blow and bow their way into the scores with Stakhanovite energy. The programme was unsurprisingly written entirely by Russian composers.
Kicking off with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol the orchestra warmed up well . But when Siberia’s own Sergei Redkin strode onto the stage towards the immense Corn Exchange piano to perform Sergei Rachmaninov‘s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, things really did get going. Sergei (the pianist as well as the composer) is clearly a genius. In fact he is a heartthrob version of a romantic pianist, what you might hope for when a dramatic tall figure sweeps towards the piano and simply takes charge of it - by the way, he should get another publicity picture, he looked ten times more dashing in person than in the pale shades of his programme photograph. If the other Sergei - the composer - had appeared in person it could not have been more dramatic. But just a minute , wasn’t it a bit familiar? Enter – straight from the memory bank - Andrew Lloyd Weber - and his own cello version of the same tune. Yet great as Andrew LW’s version is- and it did entirely make his quiet career into a national phenomenon - this piano-based piece is in a league of its own It channels a soaring melody, passages so moving that tears sprang to my eyes, but backed at all points by a Russian wall of apocalyptic sound that threatened to overwhelm the emotions. Just to watch Seigei Redkin’s fingers hammer the keyboard with super human precision was a thrilling experience.. No wonder Rachmaninov collapsed after performing it so long – piano playing like this is a spectacle of human endurance and intellect, it did feel like a secret privilege to watch it happen..
Russain composers have a hard time of it if this concert was anything to go by. Rachmaninov himself fled the Revolution in 1917 and took refuge in Sweden. He was forced to pimp his prodigious talent to feed his young family, an artist in exile to the end of his days. His genius for composition was clear but as he toured Europe to exhaustion - ecstatic audiences everywhere in expectation of a virtuoso turn every performance - it’s hard to see when he could pause to have another crack at creation. The ‘Symphonic Dances’ are lovely and this orchestra played them well, but there is no doubt that given some space and time – and his own beloved homeland – he could have come up with exceptional rather than just good work.
And there is Mikhail Glinka. He was always a bit worried about his second opera' Overture. “
“ It’s Russian” he wrote “ There are some nasty places in the development”
And there was trouble ahead. He had based the opera on Alexander Pushkin’s poem, a Russian fairy tale ‘Rusian and Lyudmila”. He hoped that Pushkin , still seen as Russia’s premier poet , would help out with the libretto. It was not to be. Puskin was killed in a duel at the age of 37. But if the opera itself is not a great hit, the Overture truly is. At five minutes long, it’s a the most exhilarating sleigh ride through a Russian winter landscape or a dash into her dark woodland wilderness. This marvelous magical rush of Russian imagination nails it for a tradition of intense music making the entire world can love.
Go Glinka, you didn’t need Pushkin after all.