With Feeling

CAMA presents the Russian National Orchestra

Conducted by Mikhail Pletnev, with Alexander Mogilevsky, piano. At the Arlington Theatre, Saturday, March 25.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

The Russian National Orchestra has a beautiful sound, smooth yet emotional — the sound of an all but cosmic excellence that belies the mere 16 years since it was founded by Maestro Mikhail Pletnev, who has led it ever since.

The orchestra opened with Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, and even though it is rather less lively than the usual curtain-raiser, it made a perfect introduction to the evening. The piece is scarcely more than a sublimely nostalgic footnote, yet how sweetly it glows. It is the perfect bouquet to place on a beloved’s grave.

An introduction underscored the difficulty of the next piece, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (with piano soloist Alexander Mogilevsky). I think, however, that the concerto’s reputation as the Everest of piano concerti dates back no further than the movie Shine (1996), which cast the work in the role of pianist-killer. I have been listening to piano concerti for almost 50 years, and I can’t imagine that Rachmaninov’s 3rd is harder than Beethoven’s 5th, or Brahms’s 2nd. And when did we start measuring the greatness of a work by the problems it presents to the musician? If that were the audience’s main criterion, we would be hearing a lot more Max Reger than we do.

Difficult or merely hard, Mogilevsky played the solo part wonderfully well. On occasion, he seemed more concerned with negotiating the trees than with seeing the forest, but he always found his way back to the plan before any damage was done.

The main things for me about this work are the headlong rush of it; the tidal wave of feeling that sweeps everything along before it; the gorgeous, melancholy tunes; and the bravura finale. Once you are inside the music, you are not supposed to think about the person playing it, and this grand anonymity Mogilevsky, Pletnev, and the orchestra achieved immediately. They became the music.

After the emotionally exhausting Rachmaninov, the last piece on the program, Peter Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G Major, Opus 55, seemed positively neo-classical. But if their goal was decompression after exploring the depths with Rachmaninov, I think they may have over-corrected. From a listener’s point of view, this is a pretty but uneventful score. It is like a string of coming attractions for features that never arrive—exquisitely played, of course. I just missed the Tchaikovsky that moved Stravinsky to proclaim: “He was the most Russian of us all!”

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