Friday, May 16, 2008

From Russia, with love

Olga Kern at a recent New York recital.

Whenever the Russians come to town, it seems our own Russians come out to meet them in force. Last Thursday night at Sanders Theatre, for instance, before the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra took the stage, you'd have been hard pressed to catch a word of English between all the "da's" and the "nyet's" - and truth be told, you could hear more of the same even after the orchestra started playing. For this was apparently less of a musical occasion than a kind of homecoming for the crowd, which let its appreciation - and impatience -be known with rhythmic applause and general murmurs and expectorations.

The Virtuosi - who are currently on their 30th anniversary tour, under the baton of founder Vladimir Spivakov - entered the hall in Old World style, to a rousing response, but but at first seemed a bit rattled: their opening reading of Schoenberg's Transfigured Night sounded a bit ragged and thin - they played dramatically, but stridently; you'd never have guessed, from this performance, at the transcendent affirmation Schoenberg intended to convey.

But with the arrival of soloist Olga Kern (above), the concert suddenly righted itself. The willowy Ms. Kern looked smashing in a glittering black gown - and the crowd let her know it (they even more loudly approved of a costume change into sparkling scarlet, with matching red pumps). And as she essayed Haydn's Concerto in D Major, Kern quickly cast a musical as well as visual spell - with the orchestra suddenly cohering behind her. True, Kern plays Haydn rather in the mode of Rachmaninoff, which is not the current style in this bastion of early music, but her plushly romantic legato levelled all objections before it. And clearly this honorable mode is the true m├ętier of the Moscow Virtuosi, which supported her with a warm, bright buoyancy.

Things got even better with the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 in C. Minor for Piano and Trumpet - the crowd had clearly come home, and now the orchestra did, too. The dapper Mr. Spivakov (right) tended to keep things at a brisk clip, but he really tore through the Shostakovich - luckily Ms. Kern hardly broke a sweat at the highest velocities, and even glanced at the audience during one dissonant thunk! with a look that read "How do you like that?" The piece, despite its fiendish energy (so typical of Shostakovich), is nevertheless built on an ironic little dialogue between piano and trumpet, in which the keyboard's crazed dance is greeted by a melancholic sigh from the brass. Luckily Ms. Kern's frenzy was neatly balanced by trumpeter Kirill Soldatov, who sometimes looked a bit winded, but nevertheless held his sadly dying falls for what seemed like minutes on end.

Despite the clear desire of the crowd, Kern begged off any encores - and the evening then took an intriguing turn toward a "Russian Pops" mode. First the orchestra offered a charming rendering of a light piece, "Aria," by the Austrian Friedrich Gulda, known for his collaborations with Chick Corea (and even Emerson, Lake and Palmer). I think "Aria" has few depths, but the orchestra played it winningly, if a little too quickly. The concert then headed south, toward the tango, of all things, with accordion virtuoso Nikita Vlasov leading two pieces by Astor Piazzoll, whose "nuevo tango" cuts the genre's doomy schmaltz with technical challenges and unexpected dissonances. There must be some secret axis between the Russian and Argentinian soul, because Mr. Vlasov played with light-fingered melancholy, the strings responded with dark fire, and the crowd ate it all up. By the finish - after several short encores - Mr. Spivakov was beaming, and accepting flowers from the crowd. And it was somehow a surprise, upon leaving the theatre, to discover Memorial Hall instead of the Kremlin outside.

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