Let's put it kindly: The Leningrad State Symphony of the U.S.S.R., which played Friday night at the Kennedy Center, is an orchestra that marches to a different drummer. Less kindly, this is not a virtuoso ensemble as we understand that term in the United States. There are at least a dozen American orchestras, and probably twice that many, that can outperform this group in terms of energy and precision. It's not exactly bad, but its playing is sloppy, and it doesn't seem to care much about some of the things that matter most to the top American orchestras.
At least, you can put it that way if you want to be kind to guests in our city. The Leningrad Symphony does not show the tension that can be heard more or less constantly in American virtuoso orchestras. There was never a feeling that conductor Alexander Dmitriev was pushing it up to or beyond its limits, and nobody seemed to be taking any risks in a program that began with Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony and continued with Liszt's Second (and second-best) Piano Concerto and Debussy's "La Mer."
Perhaps the arrangement of the program was the biggest risk of the evening. It is impossible to avoid a feeling of anticlimax after beginning with Tchaikovsky's technically dazzling and emotionally draining symphony. And anticlimax was, in fact, not avoided in the Liszt concerto, rescued from mediocrity only by pianist Lazar Berman's dazzling solo, and in a "La Mer" that was played correctly enough but with no special vitality.
The Tchaikovsky was the orchestra's best work, and it was good to hear the music with the special flavor of a Russian orchestra: horns that sound a bit like saxophones, bassoons that sound like nothing else in the world, and a bass so thick you could spread it on toast. The brilliant, stormy passages in the first and third movement were imposing but lacked the final bit of energy that means an orchestra is giving its all. But in the more relaxed sections, the phrasing was emotionally effective, with cadences and "breathing" like a human voice.