YURI BASHMET & MOSCOW SOLOISTS reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, February 17, 2009, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto

Yuri Bashmet played Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre, Op. 40 on a Testore viola like the model Mozart used. Its singing voice, more redolent of hollow body than strings, is unforgettable. The music itself is a sublime blend of this unique instrumental voice, and a soaring Hebrew devotional melody not so emotionally different from the folk melodies Bruch chose for his Scottish Fantasy of 1880.

In designing programs for his viola and the Moscow Soloist chamber string orchestra that he has been conducting since 1992, Bashmet gets involved with transcriptions. The Bruch was originally scored for solo cello, winds, brass, harp, timpani and strings. What transcribed pieces lose in orchestral richness, they gain in sharpness and elegance, a good trade-off.

One of the strengths of Bashmet’s conducting is his ability to bring out a lot of colour and unusual spatial effects. Grieg’s Holberg Suite, for example, being a tribute to a the Danish writer Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) and originally composed as a piano suite, opens with a Baroque “Praeludium” that sounds a bit like a Brandenburg Concerto, but with an added flair and an expansive sense of prairie landscape. The contrasting “Sarabande” while sober and reflective is unmistakably romantic in its sweep. The “Aria” is a bit of a tear-jerker in which the cellos do very remarkable work. The final “Rigaudon” is a knees-up fiddle piece recalling Vivaldi. It is also based on a folk theme, and is very well constructed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the evening was Stravinsky’s little-known Concerto in D that shifts between D Major and D Minor throughout the work making difficult demands on conductor and instrumentalists alike. Maestro Bashmet led the orchestra through the rich score with a feather touch that brought out the composer’s characteristic rhythmic imbalances: the nervous, staccato, percussive voicings of the first movement, the ethereal indigo waltz of the “Arioso,” and the locomotive buzz of the enigmatic, comic “Rondo.”

The music of the second half of the concert was interesting musically but was even more entertaining due to the all-round display of virtuosity. Bashmet rescored a Paganini quartet for violin, viola, guitar and cello into a work for solo viola and small orchestra. It is full of great tunes, many with a tsigane flair, and is enlivened by some awesome moto perpetuo passages for the soloist, and much alternation between soft and wild parts spiced with very skillful pizzicato.

The evening was crowned with the turbulent and lyrical Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 by Tchaikovsky. The piece, scored down from the original full orchestral version is filled with folk melodies, Russian melancholic moods, and sparkling energy. After many offerings of flowers by pretty young men and women, Bashmet brought the evening back to ground with a hauntingly beautiful version of Bach’s Air on the G String.

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