A Sound Like No Other

Friday, May 09, 2008

At a time when individual orchestras are sounding more and more alike, the Russians are a curious exception, maintaining a distinctive national character that sets them apart. Last fall the St. Petersburg Philharmonic brought its immaculately disciplined, dark-as-pewter sound to Copley Hall, and Friday (May 9) virtuoso violinist Vladimir Spivakov brought his Moscow Virtuosi to the same venue on the first leg of their current North American tour.

Like his own elegantly refined playing, Spivakov's carefully chosen colleagues display an exuberance that is tempered by aristocratic restraint. And like their colleagues to the north, their discipline and cohesion sets an unusually high mark. Instead of the dark, soulful colors of St. Petersburg, these young Muscovites (and the 30-member group is definitely on the youngish side) exude a glistening sheen which is also richly centered. Neither the steely hardness of most European and North American orchestras, nor the luxuriant warmth of the old-Vienna Central Europeans, Spivakov's players have created a synthesis that keeps the warmth of Romantic heart at the center, yet floats a pliant line of classical elegance.

This was immediately evident from their concert-opening Mozart Violin Concerto in D Major, K. 211, which sparkled with a passionate drive that danced lightly through this early Mozart work. Playing the solo from the conductor's position, Spivakov gave them everything they needed to know about the interpretation of the piece from his own beautifully nuanced legato. He places every note with a clear understanding of its function in the line, which is simply a technical way of saying his playing is always totally engaging and never boring.

Too often Mozart's small-scaled violin concerti (i.e., they are such only in comparison to the more expansive concerti that fill the standard repertory from the following centuries) are pumped up by soloists and symphony orchestras in order to "make them sound more impressive." Of course, this attitude only makes them appear bloated and empty. I cannot recall enjoying a Mozart Violin Concerto more, nor being further at the edge of my seat wondering what the soloist was going to do in the next cadenza. The Moscow Virtuosi restored the inner vitality of this concerto by understanding its own proportions and fleshing them out with loving conviction.

The day prior to this Copley Hall concert was V-E Day, a date of great historic meaning to Russians, for whom that war was a devastation beyond our imagining, but a date not marked much in the U. S. A. these days. In terms of military casualties, our losses were great, but the mainland U. S. was untouched by the conflict. So it was no surprise that Spivakov chose to play Dmitri Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C Minor, Op. 110A, a piece dedicated to the memory of all the destruction and loss of World War II. Now, there is some controversy about the dedication of Op. 110 (Shostakovich's 1960 String Quartet No. 8, from which the Chamber Symphony was orchestrated by Rudolph Barshai with the composer's blessing). The work's original dedication "to the victims of fascism and war" was repudiated in the book "Testimony," that posthumous publication by Solomon Volkov that purports to contain the late composer's memoirs, but which his family and many scholars have claimed to be a fake.

Even if we are uncertain about the Chamber Symphony's specific anti-fascist dedication, it certainly is a dark, penetrating meditation on loss and despair by a Russian composer who lived through the war and the German occupation of his homeland. The Moscow Virtuosi presented this brooding tapestry in all of its somber hues, from the opening lamentation to the bone-rattling urgency of the Allegro and the shattering resignation of the closing Largo. The ominous three-note theme that haunts the middle of the piece--most call it the dreadful "knock-on-the-door by the KGB" theme--achieved even greater authority and fear in this orchestrated version than can come across in the original string quartet setting. Spivakov's deep conviction about this work informed every phrase and gesture, and the extended silence at the end of the piece was greater testimony to its effect than the hearty applause that came after the silence.

Having looked at history's darker side in the concert's first half, Spivakov turned to Tchaikovsky's beloved and mildly escapist "Serenade for Strings" for the second half. The composer wrote this stirring chamber piece as a tribute to Mozart, whose music Tchaikovsky adored. Most analysts are perplexed to find the Mozartean qualities that the composer claimed he wove into the score, but when the Moscow Virtuosi launched into the Serenade, it was a revelation. Instead of the usual thundering chords that outline the initial theme, the Muscovites floated this progression with a finesse that immediately summoned Mozart in his full Viennese court regalia, and for at least the first two movements, they maintained this balletic classicism, a refreshing approach to these familiar cadences and themes. The last two movements not even the Moscow Virtuosi could extract from their entrenched Romanticism--here Tchaikovsky fashions more of a tribute to Massenet than to Mozart--but they suffused them with ravishing tonal beauty and lithe phrasing.

After a few encores by Mozart and Shostakovich, Spivakov called out his touring accordion soloist Nikita Vlasov to play the essential part in two dances by the Argentine Astor Piazzolla, works that are featured on one of the other programs with which the ensemble is touring. A more passionate and compelling interpretation of these pieces could hardly be imagined.

San Diego Arts
Moscow Virtuosi Play Copley Hall
A Sound Like No Other
By Kenneth Herman

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