Conductor Tugan Sokhiev debuted with the BSO Thursday, directing brilliant pieces composed by youngsters. Having a forceful 23-year-old Canadian virtuoso and the conductor, who is an exemplar of the up and coming part of the Russian musical establishment, guaranteed a certain amount of energy, though that energy spread unevenly.
Britten’s delightful Simple Symphony, a chockful of musical ideas fed by unbounded creativity of the composer’s juvenilia, premiered in 1934 with just nine strings, and frequently has been played by even smaller groups. BSO and Sokhiev came out in full force — 8 players in each of da braccio sections and 6 each of cellos and basses — and set themselves up for some challenges. The Boysterous Bouree, the first movement, did not sound as crisp and neo Baroque as it should. It was a rare example of this orchestra not sounding together.
With Playful Pizzicato, though, everything came back into order: the orchestra was fun again. The slow movement that followed turned the spotlight toward the podium: in this early precursor of later Britten’s angst and drama, Sokhiev introduced himself as a specialist. He had conducted Britten at Bolshoi, and one could easily imagine a highly rewarding Peter Grimes led by this baton.
Sokhiev moves beautifully. Sometimes he is very endearing with extremely economic indications of speed or dynamic range, and sometimes he is quite explicit, just short of calling players by name in his specific indication of accents. His manner was fully present in Britten, but became especially obvious in Chopin’s E Minor concerto that followed.
Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, also debuting with BSO, joined the orchestra augmented with the winds and timpani. Sokhiev started with suitably matter-of-fact introduction of the two major themes, leaving the exploration to the piano. Superb in his perfect articulation the soloist also sounded quite soulful in his ritardandi, with modest and tasteful use of rubato and overall impression of the idiomatic. His robust articulation dominated however: Lisiecki placed unusually strong accents on the accompaniment, creating harmonically interesting sound, but somewhat drowning the main voice. Sokhiev at the same time was artfully laboring at the orchestral part, sinking the idea that Chopin was really just thinking about the piano part. His attention to accents became extreme: he gestured to sections with determination of someone calling in some old favors. It was interesting to listen to and a great spectacle.
Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Chopin’s dedicatee, was also a star performer and influential composer. It would be very easy to write off his own first piano concerto as completely derived from Chopin, if not for the fact that it was written a few years earlier. Upon arrival to Paris, the young respectful Pole with two piano concerti under his belt seriously considered enrolling into Kalkbrenner’s class to study his piano technique. If there is a good explanation of why Chopin’s concerti are on the top shelf while his idol’s music is barely heard today, it doesn’t come down to difference in the musical idiom. I would argue it has to do with storytelling and the power of conviction.
Kalkbrenner would have approved of the forcefully delivered, hyper-articulated performance by Lisiecki and of Sokhiev’s artful accompaniment. Hell, maybe even the young Chopin, in his admiration of the virtuoso technique, would have approved wholeheartedly. A listener, who had at least once experienced a less artful and more wistful delivery of this piece, would be less satisfied. Having once heard the 12-year-old Kissin’s debut with this concerto, this reviewer is addicted to the experience of being left breathless, rather than dazzled.
Once the obligatory solo encore — Chopin’s Nocturn in C-sharp Minor, op posthumous, in this case — was out of the way, it was back to orchestra business. Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was pure vintage BSO: vivid colors, lush and transparent. The pilgrim procession in the slow movement rested on beautifully clean ostinato of double bases. Sokhiev smoothly collaborated with the sections, and the gorgeous winds added their moments of expressiveness. It added up to overall joy and complete satisfaction.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.