Looking for the real "Soviet Sound"
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
Hard to see clearly in the joyful mess of the classical music orchestras classification in Moscow. While the symphonic landscape in the USSR could have been summarized simply by : Evgeni Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, Kirill Kondrashin the Moscow Philharmonic and Evgeny Svetlanov the USSR State Orchestra, the fall of the USSR has turned the ex-soviet orchestras upside-down and forced them to face many challenges: the preservation of a musical identity, battles to avoid dissolution or banktuptcy and the understanding of the new globalization logics that transformed the classical world and the sound of orchestras.
Three decades later, the Muscovite modern symphonic world seems to have completed its transformation. A transformation made of the changes of orchestra names, ensemble creations and modernization of tired bands. A recomposition balancing between perpetuation of Soviet tradition and the standardization – some would say trivialization- of the orchestras sound internationally. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the nationality of an orchestra by ear. The “Soviet sound”, so difficult to describe and yet so particular, could be summed up by homogeneous strings going strait to the point and strongs winds energized by brasses. The advocates of a system that is no longer obeying national tradition claims that the French orchestras loses their clarity, the Germans lose their round and melted sound, the Amsterdamers lose their effortless and relaxed sound. But it seems that the Muscovite orchestras, after giving in to the sirens of the West, seems to have again turned towards what they do best: playing music as the Russians they are.
Many USSR orchestras changed their names, starting with… the National State USSR Orchestra, now called the Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra, in tribute to its historical conductor. Its double-headed management (Vladimir Jurowski as Music Director and Vasily Petrenko Principal Guest Conductor) has been able to perpetuate the excellence of one of the best orchestras of the country. Jurowski, who is undoubtedly one of the best conductors in the world, has made of the Soviet sound his battle horse (he is able to make its London orchestra, the LPO, sound like the most Soviet of all ensembles).
The Muscovite Radio Orchestra became the Tchaïkovsky surely to pursue further their international development following the USSR’s dissolution. Its conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev, with whom the Tchaïkovsky engraved many major interpretations of the Russian repertoire, has turned “his” orchestra into a kind of 2.0 Soviet ensemble, like the Russian National Orchestra of Mikhail Pletnev, between tradition and modernity.
The fall of the wall meant also the birth of many orchestras. Private orchestras, first of all, including the most brilliant of them: the Russian National Orchestra. Created by maestro Mikhail Pletnev in the 1990s, he is now reaching new heights in the interpretation of Russian music. The RNO evolves now at a level so high that there is hardly anyone but the St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov to compete with them.
The Musica Viva is another private ensemble that has also elected residence in Moscow, it is conductud by the cellist and conductor Alexander Rudin, which represents a kind of institution on its own in Moscow.
Other more modern orchestras have been created under the Russian government’s desire: the Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra in 2003 and the Novaya Rossiya in 1990. The keys of these two ensembles have been given to two renowned soloists and conductors, Spivakov for the National of Russia (also known in Moscow to be its Virtuoso Chamber Orchestra’s founder ; and its current director) and one of the most renowned violists in the world, Yuri Bashmet, for the Novaya Rossiya.
There are many things that do not change though. The Bolshoi is still the Bolshoi and the Moscow Philharmonic still is the Moscow Philharmonic (as well as the Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alexei Utkin).
But both Moscow orchestras suffers from the competition of their Petersburger counterparts. The Bolshoi does not have the international aura of the war machine built by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky. Nevertheless, the Bolshoi is still an elite formation able to reach music summits, especially when Tugan Sokhiev is found in the pit, a composer that French and German music lovers are beginning to know well…
The Moscow Philharmonic, on the other hand, enjoys the eternal sympathy of the Muscovite public towards its historical conductor Yuri Simonov but hardly compare with Termirkanov’s orchestra. If it no longer has the power and skills it once had under Kondrashin’s baton, young and talented conductors such as Dimitris Botinis are giving a new breath to this orchestra that you can feel capable of the best.
Another thing that seems immutable is the sound produced by the MGASO, now called MSSO (Moscow State Symphony Orchestra). The orchestra, under the influence of Pavel Kogan, has been able to keep a deeply soviet aesthetic. The MSSO musician is an endemic species of Moscow, very rarely venturing far from the acoustic of the Great Hall of the Conservatory, an acoustic that they collectively master so well. Hearing the MSSO playing is a leap into the past, it is listening to the preserved sound of a real Soviet orchestra under the authoritarian figure of a brilliant conductor like few others.
As you have understood, the classical music offer in Moscow is overwhelming and difficult to understand. The multiplication of concert halls makes it even less readable: on concerts evening you need to dig a bit to find the best playbill between the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the Zaryadye concert hall, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, the Rachmaninov Hall, the auditoriums of various museums … Life of classical music in Moscow is like the city, dynamic, abundant; not always very clear… but kind of a small world with an identity in perpetual movement: lost somewhere between modernity, soviet heritage and the great Russian tradition.