Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D minor
Whenever I have heard this orchestra from Tatarstan I have never failed to be surprised at the fascinating young musicians that are presented here but nothing prepared me for the artistry and brilliance of the eleven-year old Alexandra Dovgan from Moscow. Dovgan has been winning piano competitions from the age of seven, and last year she won the Grand Piano International Competition in Moscow in a performance of this concerto accompanied by Sladkovsky and the State Symphony Orchestra (Svetlanov).
This marked the opening of the month-long Music Festival dedicated to the orchestra’s first chief conductor Nathan Rakhlin. Rakhlin was one of the group of Soviet conductors who won celebrity status in 1938 along with Mravinsky, Melik-Pashayev, and Kondrashin in the First Conductors Competition. To open the month long festival in honour of the founder of this orchestra was a prestigious occasion and also reveals the high respect given her by the orchestra’s Music Director and Chief Conductor Alexander Sladkovsky. One could not open such a festive event more auspiciously then with the youthfully fresh romantic concerto by Mendelssohn.
The appearance of this young girl in her white dress was akin to a fairy-like adventure wholly apt for such a festive occasion here in the packed hall in Kazan. This was the first occasion in which this orchestra has played a piece by Mendelssohn under Sladkovsky. With the thunderous chords of the opening bars, and the piano entry with her crystal-clear articulation – given sensitive support from Sladkovsky and his musicians – all of our expectations were realised. In this child-like and youthfully fresh, yet astonishingly romantic, music she showed breath-taking technique and mastery. It was clear too that the young soloist was listening to the musicians and finding eye contact with the woodwind players. Following the idea on the low strings in the Andante, she picked up the bright theme, and delightfully brought fresh colours into play. This was a beautiful passage of almost heavenly playing, blending child-like enthusiasm with enchantingly intoxicating music-making. Dovgan brought out all the tenderness and freshness of the music and the spring-like ideas proved marvellously suited to her artistry; the rondo was masterfully performed without the slightest degree of nerves as if she has been playing this music for years. It was wonderful to witness her delight in performing and her youthful presence at the keyboard: her glancing around the hall at moments of rest was as if this was something to which she was already accustomed. She seemed to take pleasure at the music-making process. Following the roar of applause after the closing bars, this gifted teenage pianist played a delightful encore of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D minor.
This was first time that Sladkovsky conducted Mahler’s First Symphony in his nine years here despite the recording on Melodiya of 2006. There was here a link with Rakhlin for this symphony was first played here under him fifty years ago when he created this orchestra. Hence after the well-received reviews on Melodiya, there was a degree of expectation for this performance. The opening bars of the first movement (Langsam, schleppend) gave us a sense of discovery with the gentling rustling strings, and maintained by the bright woodwind, against the dissonance from the off-stage brass, Sladkovsky here created mysterious awe and the anticipation of a new dawn. The cheerful Ländler was charmingly introduced, with a pronounced deep velvety sound from the strings evoking the richly golden toned bloom renowned of a Viennese orchestra – a quality added since my last time here – and the idea from the flute of Venera Porfirieva was out of this world. The brass department too showed why this orchestra is so talented and celebrated in Russia. With the transition there was a mood of ecstasy maintained in the clean attack of the brass, with a fantastically thrilling passage to close the great opening. In the second movement, Sladkovsky ensured a fantastic unity of ensemble, from the first violin to the back of the huge strings group, upholding complete security in performance, notable too was the magical play by the flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon which was truly world class. In the third movement, there were imposingly tender thumps on timpani echoing the solo double-bass opening the slow march, the ‘Bruder Jacob’ (or ‘Frère Jacques’) funeral march-like theme, and a switch quickly to klezmer music where the brass were unbelievable. The first violins invoked the slow dying away of the theme, before a reprise of the march, and still more glorious brass playing.
In the finale, Sturmisch bewegt- Energisch, there was created an appropriate sense of terror, with colossal sound projection, through playing of astonishing intensity, every nuance of their performance took the musicians to the edge of their capabilities and Sladkovsky’s handling of the transition sections was astonishing. The first violins – led by the wonderfully talented Alina Yakonina – summoned the most heart-rending passage, bringing out the composer’s great love for life. Sladkovsky is a master in creating an atmosphere or mood, switching from ecstasy to thrilling terror in a split second, ultimately culminating with the celebration of life itself and with the forces of evil vanquished the hero is gloriously victorious in the tremendously exciting finale.
This was a memorable performance revealing not only virtuosity of world-class standards by this orchestra – all of which was masterfully directed. This was a tremendously dramatic interpretation by Sladkovsky of a composer he clearly loves and cherishes. At the close, there was a tremendous roar from the capacity audience and a standing ovation. A lovely tradition by this orchestra was their applause of their audience as if we were all sharing this remarkable musical experience together.