National Philharmonic of Russia in Escondido
by George Weinberg-Harter
Once I heard a radio interview with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who had left what was then the Soviet Union to become conductor of our own National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. When asked which in his opinion was the best orchestra in the U.S.S.R., maestro Rostropovich answered, "The best is Leningrad Philharmonic." Then he laughingly added: "Only trouble is, they can’t play!"
Rostropovich may have been having his bit of a joke. But this was during what is now viewed as a period of national stagnation under Brezhnev; and the Leningrad orchestra suffered from the emigration of its Jewish string players. Today the Soviet Union has dissolved into air, Russia is again Russia, Leningrad (and its Philharmonic) is once more Saint Petersburg, and – on the evidence of the recent concert by the National Philharmonic of Russia at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, under the direction of its artistic director and principle conductor, Vladimir Spivakov – Russian orchestral performance has certainly returned to a quality commensurate with the nation’s long and glorious musical tradition.
It is true that only a couple of clearly Jewish names (one Tsukerman, one Rubinshteyn) could be detected amongst the strings in this large 108 piece orchestra. (No skeleton crew on this tour!) Much of that illustrious tradition of musicianship indeed seems to have moved on. But the sizeable and prominent string section appeared to be quite young and about half female (with even a double bass player named Anna) – a relatively recent breakthrough even in the United States. (A video I recently watched of the New York Philharmonic in 1968 under Bernstein revealed no female players at all.) The Russian winds and percussion, however, proved an almost purely male preserve, save for a flautist called Svetlana.
The most striking and illustrious female player, however, was the concert’s featured soloist, Olga Kern, who played the piano part in Sergei Rachmaninov’s deservedly popular "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" – a concerto-like theme and variations. Though not an easy work, I have heard it said that concert pianists love to play it. (Bill Murray even did a sort of brief Rachmaninov for Dummies version in "Ground Hog Day.") And it probably has never driven any piano players over the verge of sanity, as Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto is reputed to have done. The elegant and self-possessed La Kern completed playing the Rhapsody apparently a little emotionally drained, but clearly still in full possession of her wits.
Despite a plenitude of other marvelous Russian composers in the repertory, no symphony management has probably ever gone broke by programming lots of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Any "Tchaikovsky Night" is usually the sell-out of the season. And the Russian Philharmonic has not missed a bet by presenting a big Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov double bill for their tour, topped off with an effervescent overture by Shostakovich. Russian composers, and Russian music generally, are popularly supposed to be dogged by a certain melancholia, even lugubriousness. Think of those basso Orthodox chants and Volga boatmen. All their joyful trepaks, waltzes, and scherzos notwithstanding, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky often get the rap for representing the woeful Slavic soul. And not entirely without reason (or nyedarom, "not for nothing," in the characteristic Russian idiom). In Tchaikovsky we are ever returning to his typical descending phrases, to recurring stark motifs, from the Manfred Symphony, through "Queen of Spades" and the Fifth Symphony, to the final emotionally devastating movement of the "Pathetique," programmatically linked to grim concepts such as Fate. It’s as if that fatal glass of water (the cholera-ridden one that Tchaikovsky, according to legend, is supposed to have suicidally downed) is always waiting for him somewhere down the road. But whereas a sensation of self-pity often seems to cling to Tchaikovsky’s dumps, there is always something noble about Rachmaninov’s melancholy – a seeming sad acceptance but not fear of death, evinced by his frequent quotations of the Gregorian "Dies Irae" motif, sometimes in almost jubilant forms. If that fatal glass of water is for Tchaikovsky half empty, for Rachmaninov it’s half full.
Dmitri Shostakovich may have had good reason for the miserable moods that seem to show in most photographs of him – or perhaps it’s dyspepsia. Did the chelovek never smile? Certainly, though, he had grief enough imposed on him by Comrade Stalin and the Great Motherland War. (Consider the groveling subtitle of his Fifth Symphony: "A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.") But his Festive Overture, Opus 96 (1954 ... hmm, a year after Stalin’s death), which happily kicked off the concert, shows a different side of him – perhaps one that might have prevailed in his personality if world-historical conditions had been kinder. The piece has gleeful pizzaz, like glorified circus music, and galloping rhythms taken at a fine pace by maestro Spivakov and the bouncing bows of his huge string section. An overture like this was surely a fine way of starting the program.
And then Olga Kern entered for the Rachmaninov Rhapsody.
Olga marched onto the stage, a bright red star among the blacks and whites – tall and willowy with chin-length blond hair, in a stunning backless and sleeveless red dress. There was absolute silence in the house throughout Olga’s performance – nary a cough in the house (and there were coughs a-plenty later during the Tchaikovsky Fifth). The orchestra began the simple nearly skeletal introduction, and she played her first few notes casually, almost absently (Oh, it’s begun.), lifting first one hand and letting it fall languidly back into her lap, and then the other. Then she became transported with the music, playing with passionate intensity, executing with ease the rapid passages, her stiletto-heeled foot urging the pedal. Sometimes her back was ramrod straight, sometimes bent in concentration over the keyboard, with her hair falling forward. Her hands galloped across the keys and struck them with such force at times that she would rise out of her seat, or her arms would go flying back, as if she’d been stung by them.
Not all pianist need show such animation. In a recent concert at the Neurosciences Auditorium, John Lill played several Beethoven sonatas with remarkable power, precision, and passion, while maintaining a certain characteristic English impassiveness of mien and posture. But if Olga Kern needed to indulge herself in such stormy Slavic writhings to achieve her own splendid results, who is to gainsay her? Not I! The Rachmaninov Rhapsody, with, as the title implies, its many shifts of free and often exalted expression, fairly encourages such enthusiasm.
And yet the Rhapsody is a wonderfully complex and interesting work as well. Rachmaninov has sometimes – particularly during the past Modernist heyday – been unfairly denigrated for his popular and unreconstructed Romanticism. To dismiss Rachmaninov’s often pyrotechnic formal musicianship as a composer, which manages to coexist with the lush sensuousness of his melodies, is as shortsighted as to assume that a beautiful blonde can not be a brilliant concert pianist. Following Paganini himself, many fine composers have tried their hands at spinning out sets of variations on his famous theme. But it seems to me that, out of them all, Paganini included, Rachmaninov absolutely takes the biscuits. He even finds places to ingeniously weave in his favorite "Dies Irae" motif. And the most astonishing and moving moment comes in his eighteenth variation (Andante Cantabile), when he takes the fidgety Paganini theme, inverts it, slows it down, and turns into something devastatingly lovely and purely, romantically Rachmaninovian. It is the memorable pinnacle of the piece. Olga played it with great and lingering passion. At the ends of lyrical passages her arms would rise, gracefully curving from the keys, arabesquing upwards as if she were tracing the dying strains as they dissolved, to rest in the air around her face and then to casually hook her hair back around her ear. The intensity and pace of the final variations brought her to a standing position (à la Little Richard) at their conclusion. And then, with the last dying fall, she collapsed over the keyboard, her arms drooping, all spent. What marvelous histrionics! What gorgeous playing!
For an encore she repeated that eighteenth variation with, if possible, even greater passion – enough to bring this unreconstructed romantic to tears.
Tchaikovky’s Symphony Number Five in E minor, Opus 64, after the interval, was a welcome old friend. I had listened to my old LP of it so many times in my early teenage years as to practically wear the grooves out, but had not heard the work much for some time. I found it as engaging as ever, with its kaleidoscopic moods, in the Russian Philharmonic’s emotional wringer of a performance. As every schoolboy knows, the entire work is haunted throughout, from first to last, by a theme that is a sort of mournful idée fixe, again associated (in the extra-musical mind) with some kind of concept like fate or even doom. It begins the first movement, dismally seeming to creep upwards a bit and then, enervated, falling back down into utter misery again, as is often the pattern with this sort of Tchaikovsky theme. Much as Berlioz does with his own recurring idée in the Symphonie Fantastique, Tchaikovsky sometimes develops the theme, at other moments just brings it back for brief and often threatening quotations, disrupting the flow of other prettier or more serene melodies. One such is a gorgeous singing horn solo in the second movement, here played with sweetly languishing slowness. A charming and wistful waltz, one of Tchaikovsky’s specialties, adorns the third movement, punctuated by a funny sort of scampering and scurrying constrasting section, which always reminds me, proleptically, of hectic city motorcar traffic, a bit like the Paris taxi horns in Gershwin’s "An American in Paris." The waltz’s innocent return is rattled by Fate again. But in the final movement the melancholy mean fate motif, turning from minor to major, emerges, quite a reformed character, full of seeming optimism in a triumphant and gladsome Andante maestoso followed by a final allegro vivace like a great happy whirling carousel ride. That fatal glass of water seems to have been, for the time, deferred.
Maestro Spivakov treated what was obviously a very well pleased audience to three encores of delicious Tchaikovsky ballet sugarplums: two of the national dances from the second act of "Swan Lake," and, at last, a brilliant mercurial performance of the Russian Dance from "The Nutcracker," returning the concert full circle to the expression of Slavic high spirits.
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche