The Moscow Virtuosi On Tour

CanadaCanada Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Piazzolla: Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, Vladimir Spivakov, conductor, Chan Centre, Vancouver, 6.5.2014 (GN)

Mozart: Divertimento in F major, K.138
Tchaikovsky, Serenade in C major, Op. 48
Shostakovich: Two Pieces for String Octet, Op.11
Two Pieces for String Quartet (1931)
Piazzolla: History of the Tango (1986)

It is exceedingly rare for a classical concert to have a very strong security presence, but I suppose this is the fate of certain Russian touring groups at the present moment.  Formed in 1979 under the leadership of violinist Vladimir Spivakov, the Moscow Virtuosi has had an interesting history.  Initially in the shadow of the venerable Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble had to struggle to receive approval as an ‘official’ musical institution from the Ministry of Culture.  Approval came in 1983, but it was only in 2003 that they actually found a true home when the Moscow International Performing Arts Centre was built. In earlier days, one recalls Spivakov recordings for EMI, but the ensemble’s reputation comes largely from their large number of later recordings for RCA/ BMG and their many tours in Europe.  Presently on their 35th anniversary tour, the ensemble and Maestro Spivakov have certainly achieved celebrated status in the eyes of Russians. We thus had an interesting tension at this concert: Maestro Spivakov being fully and lovingly adored by the largely-Russian contingent inside the hall in clear contrast to the leaflet-bearing protesters outside.

Perhaps all this spurred the music making, which was in general quite exhilarating.  Certainly there has been generational turnover within the ensemble — the principals are all now quite young — but the quintessential Russian sound remains: the body and expressive power of the violins and the burnished weight of the middle to lower strings coming together in a fully distinctive output.  The ensemble has 25-30 players.

The opening Mozart String Divertimento, K. 138 immediately revealed this tonal character and the conductor’s preference for smooth, carefully shaded contours, but there was no lack of animation.  Dramatic contrasts were effected quickly and fluently, one group of strings nicely playing off against another.  A disciplined but also quite a charming performance, perhaps slightly more fulsome than one might be used to these days.

No Russian string ensemble on tour can seemingly avoid playing Tchaikovsky’s perennially-fresh Serenade in C.  Gergiev performed it for us with his Stradivarius Ensemble in recent years, giving us a supercharged, slightly rough-hewn reading.  The Moscow Virtuosi was quite different, giving a very patient and sculpted rendering, full of detail and beauty.  The opening movement moved deliberately, but was exceptionally articulate and cultivated.  The smooth, moulded phrasing and control of textures certainly gave us a nice ‘romantic’ glow, and the eloquent question and answer between the string groups was noteworthy.   The famous Waltz flowed nicely, often finding an innocent joy.  The slow movement was both probing and very romantic, finding a wonderful richness from the bottom strings and sometimes almost a ‘crying’ quality from the violins.  At a very measured speed, it moved from the softest utterance to the most powerful emotional expression.  The last movement had superb structural control, progressing from a deliciously soft, tentative, almost whispering opening to a strong and purposive finish with an absolutely sure hand.  Here and there, there might have been a trace of calculation in the dynamic contrasts, but overall, this was a very strongly executed and thoughtful interpretation, revealing more beauty and variety in the work than one normally hears.

Perhaps the most interesting work on the program was Shostakovich’s youthful Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11.  I had enjoyed this striking little piece played in its octet form (by the Academy of Saint Martin’s in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble) a few years ago, but its transcription for string orchestra is really stunning, at least as played by the Moscow Virtuosi.  One can have no doubt about the artistry and power of this group of instrumentalists!  They found some wonderfully rich and varied lower string textures in the musing Prelude, and the power and drive — with all the glissandos – of the (Bartok-like) Scherzo was scintillating.  What impressed me here was the fluency and unanimity in all parts of the ensemble.  I thought the orchestral transcriptions of the Two Pieces for String Quartet (1931) were less revealing, though the wit and banality of the Polka had its usual charm, and the playing was expert.

I perhaps would have wished for a less showy, ‘tango-like’ ending to this concert than Astor Piazzolla’s History of the Tango (1986), but it is seemingly in the tradition of the Moscow Virtuosi to programme more ‘lighter’ classics than some groups. The work’s four vignettes were actually quite interesting, and allowed the talents of four different violin soloists (including distinguished concertmaster Alexey Lundin) to be showcased.  The piece took the tango from its initial Bordello setting (1900), through Café (1930) and Night Club (1960) to its final ‘Modern Day’ form.  Each of the first three found their unique brand of touching sentiment while Modern Day left no doubt that we had left the past behind, bringing an altogether more metallic and spiky  feel.  With the catchy ‘Libertango’ as one of the encores, I think most of the obviously-enthusiastic patrons left the concert with the idea that they might indeed tango long into the night.  And, yes, the protesters had disappeared even if their message had not.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014

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