A Russian orchestra playing an all-Russian program is a grand tradition that audiences never tire of, judging from the enthusiastic reaction to Saturday's concert by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
The orchestra, founded in 1943 and on its first U.S. tour, was led by music director Pavel Kogan in warhorses by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but not before setting a stirring tone for the evening with the Star-Spangled Banner and its Russian counterpart.
There was added interest to the concert because Kogan will guest conduct the Florida Orchestra in January as one of the candidates to succeed music director Jahja Ling. Kogan is a commanding figure, in the old-school maestro mold, and Saturday's fine performance created high anticipation about how he'll mesh with local players.
The Moscow orchestra, with a huge string sound and raucous brass and percussion, is great in slam-bang works such as Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave, which opened the program. But its playing is the opposite of subtle, lacking the finesse and precision of top American orchestras.
Valdimir Feltsman, Saturday's soloist, has tried to confound stereotypes. Instead of the romantic repertoire for which Russian pianists are famous, he has devoted much of his career to baroque and classical works. Fortunately for listeners, Feltsman, who emigrated to the United States in 1987, keeps getting hauled back into performing showpieces from his homeland, such as Rachmaninoff's popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Feltsman worked hard on the set of 24 variations, with the clean articulation of the digital acrobatics in the first five surely benefiting from his experience in Bach's keyboard music. The payoff came in variation No. 18, one of the all-time great melodies, traded off between pianist and violins. Feltsman wound things up with a witty touch in the two-bar coda.
Then came the Pathetique Symphony, perhaps Tchaikovsky's best orchestral work, as well as one of the few classic symphonies to end with a slow, soft movement. Kogan brought out the dramatic contrasts, holding down the winds in the opening Adagio, pumping up the volume in the third movement's heroic march. But the daringly quiet ending can challenge an audience, and Kogan didn't quite manage to sell it on Saturday night.
The encores were a treat, including Rachmaninoff's expressive Vocalise, a rowdy excerpt from Shostakovich's ballet The Bolt and a crowd-pleasing rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever.