Let the party begin!
92 Street Y, Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall
Anton Arensky: Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, opus 35a
Franz Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D. 821 (arrangement for cello and string orchestra by Dobrinka Tabakova)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings, opus 48
Mischa Maisky (cello)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
M. Maisky (© DG/UMG)
To open their 2017-2018 concert season, the 92nd Street Y invited such prestigious musicians as world renowned cellist Mischa Maisky and one of the best American ensembles, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Neither Maisky, celebrating his 70th birthday this year, nor Orpheus have performed in the Kaufmann Hall recently: it has been 25 years since Maisky’s last appearance there, and over 15 years since the Orpheus Orchestra graced that stage. A program for the Opening Night could easily be described as “the most melodious music there is”.
In its opening and closing selections it demonstrated also the relationship between two great Russian composers: a mentor, P.I. Tchaikovsky and his younger colleague, Anton Arensky.
The concert also offered Mr. Maisky a chance to present a first American performance of one of the staples in the cello repertory, Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, commonly known as Arpeggione, this time in an arrangement for cello and strings by Dobrinka Tabakova.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as we know, is a New York based conductor-less ensemble consisting of the best local free-lance musicians, who are often well known as virtuosos on their respective instruments. That evening, for the purpose of repertory, they appeared as a somewhat streamlined team of strings only. One of the ways this ensemble of chamber musicians operates is to allow each work on the program to be prepared by a different orchestra member. This practice applies also to the leader of orchestra, which changes with every work. It can’t get more democratic than that. This type of collaboration and a rationale behind democratic decision-making was discussed after the intermission by the two violinists from the orchestra: one of the oldest, and the newest one. Here Mr. Bauch, “proudly” demonstrating his graying hair, fittingly explained differences in the way this orchestra sounds: to a large degree this depends on who is leading the group. As the saying goes “the mileage may vary”...
The opening work on that festive night was Anton Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, a lovely work which is a string orchestra reworking of a movement from this composer’s String Quartet No. 2. Upon learning of Tchaikovsky’s death, Arensky composed that work whose middle movement is set of variations based on his friend and mentor’s tune. A charming, beautifully written, inventive piece and again, as melodious as anything ever written. It well suited the Orpheus players, who gave it a warmhearted, touching performance.
Mr. Maisky, who usually appears in New York in much larger venues, deserves our gratitude for presenting a new version (though definitely not the first one!) of the Schubert work. Considering this composer never wrote a work for cello (or piano) and orchestra, this orchestration may very well serve as an ersatz. The title of the sonata written in 1824 derives its name from a hybrid instrument Schubert came to know, the newly invented Bogenguitar or guitarre d’amore, as it was originally called. It had the same six strings as the guitar, but it also used the bow, just like a cello or viola da gamba. The instrument supposedly excelled in allowing the player to execute arpeggios and broken chords. Schubert wrote this sonata for one of his friends, Vincent Schuster, who was at the time a proponent of that novelty instrument which soon faded into obscurity. On the manuscript the composer left the label arpeggione and that title has remained forever attached to this popular work.
Ms. Tabakova stylishly arranged the piano part for strings without much fussing or straining for effects. One nice aspect of the orchestration is the frequent use of pizzicatos by the double-bass, adding a needed bas-line often absent in the original accompaniment. The string arrangement also created a folksy character in the last movement Allegretto.
As I have already indicated, our soloist mentioned in the opening paragraph will celebrate his 70th birthday this year. He seemed as energetic and youthful as ever, yet there were numerous instances in his playing when one wondered if his age might be beginning to show. His playing no longer is effortless, the old sheen and elegance appear much less frequently now, and his phrasing is too often questionable (swoops at the end of phrase?). Some interpretive ideas didn’t convince me; Schubert really doesn’t demand a full stop before the end of the first movement! There is still a great deal of musicality to admire and some spectacular color effects. The piece is, alas, quite often written in the high register and here the cellist’s intonation felt a bit shaky. One wished too for more lovely moments of grace and nuance such as displayed in the middle section of the closing movement. There we had glimpses of Mr.Maisky of yore.
I admired that Mr. Maisky, always physically involved, even in moments when the cello is not leading, allowed his colleagues to proceed without much interference from the podium: he knew that at least in the cello and viola sections musicians knew his solo as well as he did himself.
The audience received him very warmly and he didn’t let his fans wait too long for an encore. It was also almost too easy to guess what the encore would be: predictably, it was about the only logical choice, the famous Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major. It was there that our soloist showed himself as the most soulful, most delicate, most touching.
We probably all have our pet peeves when comes to certain works of music, and sometimes we evaluate certain performances upon certain moments which invoke either our admiration or our dislike. For me one of those moments comes right after the somber introduction in the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings. It is the opening motif of Allegro moderato, a motif that has but four notes GAAG. Anyone singing that little melody would have to taper off the last note, for otherwise it would not sound musical. By some divine intervention, the human voice almost always happens to be our musical compass. It is in places like this I wonder about the concept of abandoning a conductor: there are plenty of works where musicians of that caliber don’t really need anyone to tell them what to do, yet there are some occasions where that little extra help might come in handy.
Other than this small detail, the orchestra was in its territory and offered an ardent, beautifully nuanced and executed version of that “chestnut”. I was particularly taken by the middle movements, which inject unusual “character pieces” into otherwise classical, Mozartean framework: the famous Waltz (often performed as an independent work) and Elegia, a reverie, melancholic, heart wrenching fragment. Those movements were apparently composer’s favorite parts in the Serenade and here at Kaufmann Hall we heard most beautiful renditions. There is one other movement in Tchaikovsky œuvre, similar to that Elegy and it appears in the Souvenir the Florence. It made me think that Orpheus would be an ideal instrument for that work: actually years ago they recorded it together with other works of Tchaikovsky and with Mischa Maisky.