A touring Russian orchestra that is young-ish as an institution (formed in 1978) and in the average age of its players delivered an all-Russian program as part of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series at East Carolina University, with decidedly mixed results. Although two soloists performed admirably, the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra as a whole exhibited a few shortcomings.
Alexander Sinchuk, a 21-year-old first-prize winner in the 2009 International Rachmaninoff Piano Competition, was soloist for Rachmaninoff’s popular “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Op. 43, and he provided several sonic fireworks and showed strong technical mastery of the work. He handled the martial section in the middle of the piece with considerable vigor, his cross-hands playing at the opening and in the 19th variation was executed with skill, and he did provide lovely playing in the famous 18th variation, marked andante cantabile, including a beautiful slowly ascending line leading into the familiar theme.
What he could have shown, however, was more finesse. Sinchuk’s reading of this piece seemed to rely more on speed and power than anything else, and as a result some of the more delicate, introspective portions of the composition got lost in a flurry of dense chords and lightning-like arpeggios. Perhaps as he continues in his career, he will develop a more fully-rounded approach to the nuance written into pieces such as this. Pianissimo is as important as fortissimo.
The orchestra members provided good support throughout. Especially nice was the backing by a celesta after a forte passage early on, and exposed oboe lines were well played. Passages mixing piano and first violins also were nicely done.
The other soloist, not highlighted in the program, was violinist Nadezda Tokareva, who played beautifully in the solo passages of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” Op. 35. While this popular work can’t be considered a four-movement violin concerto, the solo violin certainly stands out frequently, and her playing was, until the very end, quite good. She played with clarity and precision, hitting incredibly high notes with ease and without even bordering on a thin sound.
“Scheherazade” had high points and not-so-high points. In some passages, the orchestra sounded almost as if it were a young student ensemble seeing the music for the first time; at other times, the players delivered either as a group or in solo or ensemble playing a fine, full, rich sound. The piece occasionally suffered from imprecise entrances and an overall unevenness. Particular problems could be heard in the first cello (thin and slightly off-pitch), bassoon (dry rather than smooth tone) and piccolo (way too piercing, although it’s hard to be subtle with a piccolo). Based on this performance, the orchestra seems to be on the second level of symphonic performing groups, although previous ensembles under this name have received fairly glowing reviews.
However, the playing by Tokareva, who is in her early 30s, was first rate, with her only misstep coming in the final movement, “The Baghdad Festival and Shipwreck on the Rock with the Bronze Warrior,” in which her double-stop playing was marred by a second pitch that was slightly out of tune. Otherwise, this movement was perhaps the most successful, with a mighty sound signifying the storm coming from the orchestra playing at full throttle. Great percussion, including cymbals, propelled the sound, too, until the movement tapered off gently to the solo violin played against a soft orchestral accompaniment.
The orchestra opened the concert with the overture to Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride and closed with an encore, the “Lezginka” dance from Khatchaturian’s Gayaneh ballet. Both pieces were brimming with “Russian-ness,” with solid string playing augmented by lower winds and brass. The former built to a stirring climax, and though one was expecting a loud crescendo, it backed off, softened and slowed down into an almost uncharacteristic sweetness, led by flute, clarinet and wind ensemble. The latter is quite a fun piece, opening with stirring drums and swirling strings and winds. Both pieces received a good reading by the orchestra.
Conductor Alexei Kornienko led with a firm hand throughout, but this ensemble’s sound seemed too one-dimensional, lacking depth and fullness. To be fair, this might be more a problem with the Wright Auditorium acoustics than with the ensemble on stage. It would be interesting to hear this orchestra in a real concert hall, playing the same program.