ShowOne presents The National Philharmonic of Russia reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, April 29, 2009, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto

Maestro Spivakov’s style of conducting is elegant and flowing as he demonstrates from the podium a full range of emotions. The orchestra follows like a ship before the wind. The string sound has a lustrous beauty; interjections of the winds and horns are perfectly clear; the low-register basses and brass add rich photographic blacks to the musical picture. The program of overly familiar compositions turns out to be full of springlike excitement and fresh insights.

The first of four pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, “Montagues and Capulets,” is a space in which power circulates like the strutting Boyars entering the feast in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Taking the same theme, the woodwinds manipulate it to introduce the youthful lovers as gentler reflections of their hostile clans. Their playing of the “Death of Tybalt” echoes forward and westward 25 years and predicts the amazing textures, harmonies, and moves of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Under Spivakov’s baton, this orchestra shows a mastery of transitions, swift yet finely graded, that bring out new understandings of musical dramas. In the last third of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, as the final statement of the lover’s theme dissolves into the pounding music of clan violence that destroys them, you can hear how the power a family accumulates mutates into pride and how that pride darkens into a walking sense of doom out which, strangely, pours a melting stream of love that gleams for a short time and is overcome.

Denis Matsuev refired the concerto “that was heard ‘round the world”– Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto, Op. 1 (Van Cliburn ‘fired’ it first in Moscow during the height of Cold War and won the International Tchaikovsky Competition). Matsuev took charge of the work with sparkling finger work in the rolling introduction, then got deeply involved with the moody cadenza that soon followed. His Steinway, selected and borrowed for the occasion from Remenyi’s, rang like a bell. The orchestra worked with him bringing spring colours, fresh and vibrant, to Rachmaninoff’s earliest work. Between them, they developed a dramatic interpretation of the rhapsodic themes that was delicate, with a youthful fleetness.

The short slow movement, Chopinesque and Disneyesque, moved without rest into the ‘Allegro scherzando/vivace’. Matsuev, ever the showman, came out of the gate like a rabbit, melted down a bit during the following romantic section (redolent of Grieg), and rebuilt a dazzling pace towards a coherent and satisfying climax. His encore, a kind of black and white Sumi-e heavy ink-brush variation of a theme from Peer Gynt stunned the audience deeper into ecstasy. Spivakov offered three encores of music that danced and made us feel we were at a party and having a really good time.

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