Vladimir Spivakov & The Moscow Virtuosi reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, November 18, Roy  Thomson Hall, Toronto.

It is a pleasure to write about an ensemble so full of excellences. One notices from the start of Boccherini’s Casa Del Diavolo, Op.12 the purity of the Moscow Virtuosi’s sound that approaches the timbre of a period orchestra. Their melodic lines and phrasing were sharply delineated, the colours richly vibrant. Maestro Spivakov led them seamlessly through the tapestry of moods—tender, sprightly, turbulent, eerie and vernal Vivaldiesque.

The Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat Major, K271 “Jeunnehomme” is widely regarded as the “first unequivocal masterpiece of the classical style.”  The sequence of themes strikes the ear as constituting an opera without words. This impression is reinforced by the drama that develops between the voices of the orchestra and the soloist, in this case, Alexander Ghindin.

Mr. Ghindin possesses a technique that effortlessly mirrored the emotional complexity of the young Mozart’s genius: the joyful audacity, the unpredictability, the shift in the second movement to exquisitely wistful sadness that develops during the rhythmic cadenza into anguished intensity that, in turn, passes through the complex affective layering of the “Finale” to resolve as tenderness. Somehow the sense of emotional conviction peters out during the “Finale” which began to feel rushed, as if the speed and fluidity of Mr. Ghindin’s technical display overwhelmed the feeling of the music.

Was he tempted to play into the palpable adulation radiating from the bouquet-toting cohort of Toronto’s quarter million strong Russian community that packed Roy Thompson Hall last night? The two encores seemed to confirm this impression: Rossini’s “Figaro Cavatina” sounded like it had been arranged by Rachmaninoff, and Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” came off in parts like a Russian idea of ragtime.

The music after intermission, Spivakov conducting with bow and  baton was pure soul, dark and wonderful.  As soloist, Spivakov opened Alfred Schnittke’s Sonata for Violin, Chamber Orchestra and Harpsichord (1968) with a brief 12-tone solo that is swallowed by a thick orchestral soup of sound behind which the harpsichord grinds like a hurdy-gurdy.

The work maintains deep feeling while displaying a skin of shifting textures and styles. One hears locomotive cellos, organ tones, insect drone and buzz, the wiry clatter of harpsichord, atonal melodies, minimalist chord progressions and Prokofievian animal marches—a virtuosic complexity that fades away into perfect peace with a muted pizzicato of Spivakov’s violin as final punctuation.

It is an understatement to say that Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet in C Minor is meaningful. The composer confessed to shedding tears during its composition, and it was played at the composer’s funeral in 1975. With the composer’s musical signature embedded in the principle theme, this work contains Shostakovich’s feelings of grief and outrage over Fascist atrocities during the war, and similar feelings engendered by the persecutions he endured from the Communist hierarchy because of the modernist tendencies of his music.

Deep sadness, the wildness of grief, the rebellion against oppression, fugitive panic, defiance of authority, mockery, despair, the eeriness of paranoia, and love of country are all made vivid in the original quartet and in the version for chamber orchestra prepared by Rudolf Barshai with the composer’s collaboration in 1960. If a dark, bitter brew is to your taste, the beauty of this work is unsurpassed. Spivakov and his Virtuosi realized its entire palette of feeling, to say the least, and astonished by the graduated dynamics of their collective bowing.

Following this bloodbath of deep feeling came half a dozen encores that reminded everyone how much fun it is to have live musicians play familiar tunes for you.

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