Review: Moscow State Symphony Orchestra

JOE CONWAY : ‘Most concert-goers recognise passion and commitment when they see it, but this performance took things to the next level.’

Caprice Chloe Hanslip Corn Exchange Fifth Symphony John Adams John Corigliano Marche Slav Pavel Kogan Philip Glass Red Violin Steve Reich Tchaikovsky west road

19th May 7.30pm at the Corn Exchange, £31/£27/£23/£17/£11

Wearing a black top and sea-green satin flares violinist Chloe Hanslip made a vivid splash of colour at Wednesday's Corn Exchange concert. Next to her on his podium conductor Pavel Kogan preferred the traditional white tie and tails. And spread out on either side and in rows beyond them were the black and white ranks of the massive Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, visiting Cambridge as part of its British tour.

But Chloe made more than just a visual impact playing a work that has been gradually growing in popularity since it was written over twenty years ago. Most concert-goers recognise passion and commitment when they see it, but this performance took things to the next level. As Philip Glass's Violin Concerto unfolded it became clear that Chloe Hanslip is actively championing this work and is in the process of making it her own.

Talk about this American composer and his associates Steve Reich and John Adams and you can be sure that within five seconds someone will use the word minimalism. We're talking here about short musical phrases, repeated hundreds of times, and varied only slowly and gradually. This kind of contemporary classical music isn't all that different in essence to what you can hear in techno, trance, and house – all of which are basically minimalistic.

While the Moscow string players played the endlessly repeated figures with quiet determination, sometimes alongside fateful sounding woodwind chords, and sometimes with menacing percussion riffs, the solo violin line soared high above the textures. As you'd expect in a minimalist score Chloe Hanslip often had to make the best of relatively limited opportunities. (Sorry, Phil!). But she invested even the simplest melodies with a wealth of pure-toned lyricism, and a swift and sweet vibrato. And when it came to more energetic string crossing and double stopping we got a glimpse of Chloe's technical prowess and virtuosity.

Perhaps because of the understated aspects of the concerto Chloe played what was clearly a predemitated encore. The Caprice from John Corigliano's Red Violin was another American minimalist piece, a fiery arpeggio study which drew gasps from the large audience as Chloe finished on a spectacular high note.

The concert had begun with a rousing and thoroughly authentic performance of Tchaikovsky's Marche Slav which gave the orchestra a chance to demonstrate its superb quality. The very large string section played as a unit, with totally together bowing and a big glossy tone. But woodwind and brass were equally great, the woodwind sound clear and open, the brass majestic. This ceremonial piece includes snatches of the Russian national anthem and ended in a blaze of patriotic and percussive fervour.

At the interval all was set up for the concert to end as magnificently as it had begun with more Tchaikovsky – the Fifth Symphony, which I'd last heard on Saturday at West Road in a home-grown version. Sure enough the piece began beautifully with clarinets and lower strings producing stunning diminuendos, with each one of six chords a tad quieter than the one before. When the main theme got underway everything seemed on target for a great performance urged on by Pavel Kogan's impulsive beat. Sure the speeds were a bit on the quick side, but an orchestra of this calibre could easily cope.

In fact the speed of the second movement was noticeably slower than on Saturday night and consequently the horn player was able to phrase and pull the music around in a delightfully free and easy way in the famous solo. So when did it all start going wrong? Er, horribly wrong even? The delightful waltz theme of the third movement was fast but again the strings just about managed. But by the time the players reached the gorgeous bassoon solo things were getting way out of hand with Pavel Kogan pressurising the players mercilessly. The violin tune which follows was a mad scramble and pointed the way to a manic finale which amounted to a massive miscalculation. So sad, so unnecessary, and such a disappointing end to a promising concert.