Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra lives up to its name

By Philippa Kiraly

On tour around the country, the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra made a stop at Benaroya Hall, Sunday night. It seems as though Seattle’s Russian community turned out for it in droves—I heard little English spoken that night, and it was a deeply attentive audience.

The two halves of the program were separated by close to two centuries, the first half containing the Symphony No. 4 in D Minor (called “La Casa del Diavolo,” or “The House of the Devil”) by Boccherini from 1771, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat Major from only six years later. The two works of the second half were composed even more closely together: Schnittke’s Sonata for violin, chamber orchestra and harpsichord, transformed from his own 1963 sonata for violin, and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C Minor, arranged under his aegis by Rudolf Barshai from his 1960 Eighth String Quartet, Op 110.

Baroque elegance was the order of the day as the Virtuosi, conducted by its founder Vladimir Spivakov, undertook the Boccherini. Sprightly tempi, sometimes with lightning fast runs which never felt rushed, sounded brisk and crisp in the first movement, furious and stormy in the last, while the gentler second movement distinguished itself with a singing tone which floated. The orchestra used little vibrato, just a hair at times, creating a pure sound which never rolled over into lushness.
It brought the same thoughtful sensibilities to the Mozart, where the piano solo was performed by 33-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin. Here, however, the size of the piano seemed an issue. A nine-foot grand piano with the lid full open felt out of balance performing with a 30-member chamber orchestra. Ghindin’s excellent performance would have worked fine with a full size symphony orchestra, but here, it often seemed too loud against the musicians. Softer passages and the cadenzas gave a good sense of his obvious abilities and musicianship, but I wished he had been playing a smaller instrument.

Ghindin played two encores, a Lisztian-style Ginsburg arrangement of Figaro’s signature aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and the very funny rewriting of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” by Fazil Say, “Alla Turca Jazz.”

Spivakov changed hats to play his violin in the Schnittke. It was extraordinary to see the orchestra stay together as it did without a full time conductor in this piece. The harpsichordist gave some direction, and principals in each section made clear the start of a phrase, and somehow everyone was always in the right place in this work without apparent beat or structure much of the time. The timbre of harpsichord against the strings gave a soft percussive flavor, as did the basses more strongly, knocking on their instruments. This is a beautiful work. There is melody, there are floating curtains of musical color, there is energy and even an unmistakable reference to “La Cucuracha,” while the violin often soars above the rest.
Lastly came the Shostakovich, based on what is to me one of the most profound works of the 20th century, the Eighth Quartet, deeply personal to the composer and dedicated “to the memory of the victims of nazism and war.”

The Virtuosi gave it a superb performance. As in the 18th century music, the musicians used vibrato with restraint in both these 20th century works, nor did they play in driven style, but instead just seemed to release the sound from their instruments. This made this work all the more poignant, particularly the witches’ sabbath feeling of one of the middle movements and the three harsh chords repeated over and over, like prison bars clanging into place. The last movement sounded infinitely sad.

It was thus a shock to have four encores, all quite different in energy and brightness, right after.

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