Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Russian Masterpieces


When Pussy Riot were put on trial in October, it was time for some reflections not only on Russian politics, but also on the Russian soul. Among the more in touch outsiders when it comes to Russian affairs, Mark Ames wrote:

So often Russians can surprise you with a raw savagery that's by turns infuriating and impressive, depending on the issue and how close you are to the fangs.

The Russian soul with its darkness and impressive savagery is all clearly discernible in the three works performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.

Night on the Bare Mountain is the classical equivalent of Death Metal. It is associated with a witches' sabbath, and musically it is quite extreme (except for the ending which nobody cares about). In spite - or more likely because - of all the satanism, quite a few parents felt that this concert would be great for the kids. I was prepared to sacrifice a few of them before the intermission.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was performed with the help of pianist Natasha Paremski, herself something of a Russian masterpiece. In between stabbing out passages of music with either appropriate ferocity or brooding menace, she tossed her hair and beamed at the audience. She is sufficiently charismatic while she is on stage to draw all attention away from the wild gesticulations of conductor Andrew Litton. This was a real blessing at this particular concert as some of the audience had trouble restraining their laughter should their gaze happen to fall on Litton for too long.

In addition to the traditional Russian menace, for the composition of his Symphony No. 5, Shostakovich also had to deal with the menace of the Soviet state. He seems to have been more successful at this than Pussy Riot has been with regards to the modern Russian state. Generally, Russians like Shostakovich and loathe Pussy Riot. This is to say that any of the satirical elements supposedly present in symphony are not terribly robust or important. Generally then, it's more menace and more savagery, but at this point in the performance, it's hardly surprising.

The first performance of Russian Masterpieces by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra occurred at the Royal Festival Hall on the 16th of October 2012. There are also performances in Croydon and Aylesbury.

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