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Transfiguration and Death

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/21/2001 -  
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
Richard Wagner: Overture to Rienzi
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 5
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 6

Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
Pavel Kogan (conductor)

Back in the earliest days of détente, the orchestras that first arrived from the Soviet Union had three major characteristics in common: they each had ridiculously long, governmentally issued names, they all wore the same pair of shoes, and they all performed music, regardless of ethnicity, in a bombastic and militaristic style. My university hosted one, led by Kiril Kondrashin, and I will always remember their bellicose versions of the Brahms symphonies, cranked up to the percussive lockstep cadence of the most energetic of the output of Dmitri Shostakovich. The only exception in those days was the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky, but they didn’t get out much. Now, in the earliest days of a brand new détente, my first experience with a Russian orchestra is a visit by the Moscow State Symphony to Lincoln Center and immediately I experienced not only a notable difference in style but a significant uptick in quality.

With great good taste and heartfelt feeling, Pavel Kogan augmented his program with an opening performance of the Rachmaninoff offered as a requiem for the victims of September 11. This gesture was much appreciated and, like encores, characterizes the present difference between European and American orchestras visiting New York: Americans are yearning to return to normality; Europeans are sincerely anxious to express their empathy in their own special language. Beyond the emotion, this was a fine performance, revealing at one sitting the sumptuous sound of this ensemble’s strings, weighted by sheer numbers towards the low end of its tessitura. At this point, I eagerly awaited the ”Pathetique” with its corresponding sonority.

In many ways, the Moscow State is a typical Eastern European band, dingy brass and all. Their treatment of the Rienzi (a work disowned by its composer) was actually a little light on the bombast for my taste (this is the type of German music that those old Soviets salivated for) but was notable for its crisp exits and entrances and one killer ritardando before the last magisterial reprise of the main theme. One observation about the group as a whole: the shoes are varied now, but the look is not; each member of this ensemble appears very grim indeed, even when performing this Bugs Bunny music.

The power of music to heal is on everyone’s mind these days and no arrangement of tones is more eloquent in its consolation than the slow movement of the ”Emperor”. This performance was technically excellent, the large forces perfectly in checked balance. I always root for Mr. Feltsman; he is obviously very talented and expressive, but not always a particularly accurate executioner. Today he was really on his best behavior and made few mistakes, however I did not find his interpretation especially moving.

Amazingly enough, the debate still rages in the East about the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s death. My “Modest” proposal is to look for answers within the music. To me, it is extremely clear that this last symphony was written by a man who knew that he was about to die (compare its third movement, for example, with that of the Mahler 9). I have always been at two with Tchaikovsky, but it occurs to me that this piece contains considerably weightier emotional content than this slickly impressive performance revealed. After a naked gaff by the solo bassoonist (boy, was his face red!), the first movement featured those burnished strings and was ravishing sonically if not viscerally. The inventive allegro con grazia was neither tipsy nor graceful enough for my taste and the third movement was taken at such an accelerated pace that proper articulation was simply impossible. It was perhaps poetic justice that this dizzying alacrity and prodigious volume ultimately caused any mood which Maestro Kogan was endeavoring to establish to totally shatter when the crowd (at least the American half) burst out into loud applause at its end (some even got up and left the hall), leaving the conductor to hold his arms up helplessly until the noise abated sufficiently for him to continue with the performance. The lament that is the finale fell largely on deaf ears as a result and the death of this sensitive man was eerily anticlimactic.

Some “skaters’ waltz” style encores ingratiated the group with the remaining patrons (mostly the Russians) and we all left the hall with a sense that this is a fine body of musicians. What is needed now is to bring their game up to the next artistic level. They are a great improvement over their Soviet forerunners but, living as they do in an isolated (and economically challenged) musical environment, it might be another 40 years before they reach a higher plane of aesthetic communication.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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