For concertgoers and performers, the music of Russia holds a special place. As always, generalization is hazardous, especially for those inclined to invoke such phantasms as the "Russian soul." But the Russian repertory that's endeared itself to many of us is characteristically big-boned, voluptuous, heart-on-sleeve (except when dodging the censor) and rooted in folk traditions of exceptional earthiness and vigor. It's also highly virtuosic and, if you've got the chops, gratifying to play.
This week's Mussorgsky-Prokofiev-Tchaikovsky sampler, with the Minnesota Orchestra led by American conductor James Gaffigan and with the orchestra's own Anthony Ross as soloist, is as representative as any. It begins with the "Dance of the Persian Slave Girls"--a brief set-piece (orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov) from Mussorgsky's unfinished "Khovanshchina." Biographer David Brown opines that the composer's failure to complete this sprawling "people's opera" was the "saddest single event" of his creative life. And though the dance, steeped in faux-exoticism, hardly suggests the flavor of the larger work, it makes a savory curtain-raiser.
Prokofiev's expansive Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra is another matter. Written for the larger-than-life Mstislav Rostropovich (who, at Prokofiev's behest, composed eight bars of the solo cello part), it's among the best of the composer's late works, combining the bite and sting of his earlier music with a piquant, poignant lyricism. Prokofiev, who revised it repeatedly, never heard it in its final version.
The piece bristles with technical challenges. Rostropovich "owned" it for decades and his recordings have a unique authority. But Ross, the orchestra's principal cellist since 1991 and one of this community's leading musical citizens, needn't fear the comparison. His performance Thursday, wonderfully responsive to the music's shifting moods, was in every respect a triumph -- the finest thing I have heard him do. Ross made me forget Rostropovich and attend to Prokofiev afresh.
Prokofiev loved Tchaikovsky, whose impassioned and doom-laden "Pathétique" is the top contender for the title of Great Russian Symphony. The work, its outer movements black as pitch, has been called a "despairing homoerotic narrative," "Tchaikovsky's own requiem," a meditation on suicide and much else. Gaffigan, a native New Yorker with jobs in Switzerland and Holland, coaxed meaty, near-Russian timbres from the orchestra's strings and brass. But the symphony's middle movements were disappointing; the second lacked elegance, while the third was neither hectic nor histrionic but simply fast.