Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Grieg: Holberg Suite; Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik

Moscow Soloists/Yuri Bashmet (Onyx 4037)

28 October 2008 3 stars

Moscow SoloistsThis new disc from the normally reliable Moscow Soloists and their founder Yuri Bashmet is curiously dull. Neither the repertoire nor the execution of it is especially interesting, so that while there are plenty of glimpses of why the ensemble has such a high reputation, it's frankly hard not to be disappointed by such average results.

Admittedly, things start off well with Grieg's lovely Holberg Suite, which was the Norwegian composer's reinterpretation of five eighteenth-century dance forms. Written as a piano suite, it was first performed in a new orchestration in March 1885 and was dedicated to the Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754); it is often taken as an attempt to re-appropriate Holberg as a Norwegian master artist in contrast to the writer's inclination to travel abroad (unlike the staunchly nationalist Grieg). The Moscow Soloists are at their best in this work, simmering and lively in the opening Prelude, which shows the way of things to come. The Sarabande is beautifully romantic, with Bashmet taking care to ensure that the lines of the different instruments interlock smoothly, and the wistful harmonies towards the climax of the piece are performed with apparently genuine emotion rather than going for a cheap effect.

Acting as the centre point of the suite, the Gavotte starts off in courtly grandeur before the middle Musette loosens the form and allows interplay between the voices, relished by this ensemble, who also get to the heart of the rather sad Andante religioso of the fourth movement. Dynamic contrasts and an expressive amount of rubato generate just the right atmosphere for the piece. The Handelian Rigaudon of the final movement is likewise masterfully done: the clean, improvisatory opening passage gives way to more introspective things. The virtuosity of the playing is undoubtedly impressive, and there seems little doubt that it's constantly put to the service of the interpretation of the music rather than mere display for its own sake.

However, I'm afraid things go totally downhill with as routine an account of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K525, as you'll hear. Quite why we needed another recording of this is not clear to me, since there are numerous versions available from both specialist period instrument orchestras and ensembles using modern instruments. Most of the performance is foursquare and bland, but the points at which the tempo is played around with or emphases attempted are even more irritating. There's just no character to the interpretation, leaving us with an apparently endless first movement, a weary Romance, a plodding Minuet and a charmless finale. Where is Mozart's legendary sunshine? I'm afraid it doesn't seem to be in the Russians' blood.

One thing you would expect to run through their veins, though, is Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, but again for me there's something desperately missing. Interestingly, the piece was inspired by Mozart, whom Tchaikovsky revered as the 'Christ of Music' and whose Don Giovanni had first awoken the Russian composer's love of music as a ten year old. Once more, I think it's the lightness of touch that eludes the performers: they wring the introduction to the first movement dry of every inch of darkness and emotion it contains, and one can almost feel the soul of Russia emerging from the Moscow Soloists' sound boards. But this music has a busy surface rather than a deep centre, and yet again in the Waltz it's easy to perceive how the performers are trying to pull the piece around in an attempt to find a hidden meaning, when all that's needed is élan. If only they would allow the melody to sing, the whole thing would work a lot more powerfully. The third movement Elegie is the most convincingly performed section of the piece, the inherent seriousness of the music suiting the performers' gravity of approach, but again in the finale I find them wanting in joie de vivre; they don't connect with the work with complete conviction.

It goes without saying that all the performances on this disc are more than adequate on a technical level, but with the exception of the Grieg and parts of the Tchaikovsky, the Moscow Soloists do not justify repeating such well-worn repertoire.

By Dominic McHugh