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Russian Into Oblivion

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
04/02/2009 -  & April 3, 4, 2009
Igor Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra, Dumbarton Oaks
Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63
Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op. 64

Lisa Batiashvili (Violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Conductor)

Charles Dutoit

The title could have read “Mother Russia Redux”, for on this very same stage last week, Valery Gergiev offered an unparalleled vision of Sergei Prokofiev, warts and all. Whatever we thought of the composer before these four splendid nights, certainly our horizons were widened by such conducting.

I won’t take any wagers on which orchestra is better, Gergiev’s London Symphony Orchestra, or the New York Philharmonic, on loan to Charles Dutoit. But those of us fortunate to have heard Gergiev may have been taken aback by Maestro Dutoit’s own Russian program. It barely stood a chance.

This is hardly to denigrate M. Dutoit. He is a most cosmopolitan conductor, with orchestras, festivals and recordings which span the globe, from Japan to Verbier to Philadelphia. His forte may be Gallic music, though he can handle any era or style with aplomb and expertise. But the Swiss-born conductor simply doesn’t possess that Russian (or, in the case of Gergiev, South Ossetian) soul to conduct so much Slavic music, and his batting average last night was a mere 333.

That one exception was Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto, today a staple of the orchestral repertory, but—for those who had expected another Sacre—a mild Baroque imitation at its premiere.

To put it another way, the concerto’s Bach was louder than its bite.

Maestro Dutoit didn’t conduct the full orchestra, simply first chair players, 15 of the finest orchestral musicians in the world. With Stravinsky at his contrapuntal and comic apogee, the piece sounds like a Poulenc version of Bach as composed by Stravinsky, and Dutoit played it to the hilt. The off-rhythms of the first movement were punctuated like machine-guns, the wonderful barking bassoon sounds were played with flatulent pleasure by Judith LeClair, and the entire ensemble was transparent, jumpy and always surprising.

That splendid young Lisa Batiashvili was as good as possible in the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, and remembrance of Vadin Repin last week was no bar to appreciating her prowess. Mr. Repin was showy, brilliant, a true inheritor of Prokofiev pyrotechnics. Ms. Batiashvili was no less adept, but her technique was secondary to big overblown romantic passion of the work. The slow movement, in fact, played hard on the strings with 19th Century ardor, was the apex of her work. It was more personal, less spiky than Redim’s version, but both hearings were wonderful.

The major difference lay with the two orchestras. Mr. Gergiev has trained the London Symphony Orchestra to respond with almost unbearable tension. There was no “accompaniment” to the soloist but a feverish feeling that the orchestra was ready to leap up and run with it through every note. Mr. Dutoit might have been able to do this with is own Philadelphia Orchestra. His conducting of our own Philharmonic seemed almost lackadaisical. With Gallic gentility, he allowed Ms. Batiashvili to have her own way. In the finale, in fact, the violinist was almost egging on the orchestra, but she finally succumbed to simply (!!) playing as well as she could without much backup.

Both these pieces merged French and Russian elements. The Tchaikovsky Fifth is such a lugubrious example of Russian desolation that few conductors can make it less than woebegone.

We must face facts, that the introduction for clarinet and the lowest strings is not exactly a Russian version of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, nor did Mr. Dutoit attempt to raise the spirits. What was less forgivable was how the work trundled on, with little care for its underlying vitality, for an unconscious élan under the bleakness.

Perhaps too, Mr. Dutoit couldn’t quite get the Avery Fisher acoustics right, since nothing quite gelled in the orchestra. Those horn solos sounded out of place, the strings were woebegone, and even the triumphant ending was tacked on.

Mr. Dutoit is a great conductor, no question about that. But only mediocre conductors are always at their best. Hopefully the dismal New York weather for the next two concerts will put him more in a Russian frame of mind.

Harry Rolnick



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