Russian Autumn

The repertoire of the Rotterdam Philharmonic includes some of the great Russian works of classical music. This autumn, the orchestra has invited several guest conductors to work through the Russians starting with Чайковского and ending with Шостаковича.

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The orchestra kicked off its Russische Herfst on October 13 with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Symphony No. 4 with Jukka Pekka Saraste as guest conductor.

The contrast with Yannick Nézet-Seguin the previous Friday could hardly have been greater. Yannick was expressive, passionate, visibly interactive, while Saraste stayed true to his Finnish roots, keeping a neutral expression and exercising great economy of movement. I know this because I sat behind the orchestra, facing the conductor, and so had plenty of time to watch him. Have a look at his website for a taste of his style.

The nearly-full hall was unusually quiet, not much coughing, and there was none of the odd muffled acoustics from the previous Friday. Perhaps the weather made a difference. The Friday before was freezing with the rain pelting down whereas October 13 was a glorious and warm autumn day.

Something happened that night. After intermission, Saraste was conducting the symphony from memory, still perfectly neutral, but somewhere in the second movement electricity started to build and by the start of the pizzicato in the third movement, there was magic in the air. The music came alive in a way I have never before experienced at a classical concert. It was something beyond the musicians and the instruments, something exciting and alive. Suddenly, Tchaikovsky was not just another gloomy Russian on a stamp, but a person who spoke to us through music written 150 years ago. It was simply magic.

Pizzicato is when the string instruments are played by plucking the strings. This video from the YouTube treasure chest shows the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky at the 1971 Proms in London. They are playing the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 including the same pizzicato section that Saraste turned into magic.

Do watch. It’s an amazing time capsule from Soviet days.