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A Thoroughly Enjoyable Concert by the Moscow Virtuosi Orchestra

Shostakovich – Chamber Symphony in C minor Op.110
Haydn – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major Hob. XVIII:11
Bruch – Kol Nidrei Op.47
David Popper – Shining Polonaise de Concert Op.14
Friedrich Gulda – Hymn to Beauty
Piazzolla – Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
Piazzolla – Three Tangos

Vladimir Spivakov is the artistic director and principal conductor of the National Philharmonic in Russia.  He founded the Moscow Virtuosi in 1979 with a group of  friends and artistic associates and the highest performance standards are set for this small chamber orchestra.  On this occasion the Moscow Virtuosi were joined by two young soloists on piano and cello and by Nikita Vlasov on the accordion.

The programme notes for this concert were disappointingly thin and contained no information about the works being performed or the soloists.  The audience deserve some information about the works they are about to listen to and who is performing them.  I am pleased to say that the deficiencies in the programme notes were more than compensated for by first rate performances from the Moscow Virtuosi.

The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony which is a transcription for sting orchestra by the conductor, Rudolf Barshai of the composer’s Eighth String Quartet. Shostakovich wrote his quartet over a period of just three days while working in Dresden in 1960 and it is dedicated to the victims of war and fascism.  Shostakovich uses his personal musical motto DSCH at the start of the score and there are references to a number of his other works including the First Symphony and the Second Piano Trio during the course of the piece.  The Moscow Virtuosi were slightly tentative at the start of the opening Largo but they soon hit their stride in the exposed fugal writing.  They succeeded in capturing the meditative intensity of the movement while maintaining an immaculate tonal sheen.  Spivakov took the  ensuing Allegro molto section at a blistering pace and the primal violence of the music spilled out into the hall. The leader of the orchestra injected a sense of parody and the macabre into his solo in the ensuing waltz section and Spivakov and the orchestra did a fine job capturing the disquieting nature of this music.  There was a sense of poignancy and resignation in the final Largo as the work came to a close.

Alexandra Stychkina was the soloist in Haydn’s D major Piano Concerto which was composed in the early part of the 1780s.  Miss Stychkina looked to be in her early- to mid-teens but she was not at all intimidated by the vast hall and she gave a technically assured performance.  Spivakov’s tempo in the opening Vivace was a little rushed for my taste although the execution by the Moscow Virtuosi was first rate. Stychkina’s playing was poised and elegant and her handling of the intricate passagework was immaculate.  Occasionally, I would have liked her to give some of the chords a little more weight and to have given us slightly more robust handling of the forte sections.  The slow movement clearly owes a debt to Mozart and on this occasion it produced some of Stychkina’s best playing.  I loved the Romantic colouring she brought to the piano writing and the highly expressive way she played Haydn’s singing lines.  The Hungarian rondo finale was light and witty with the fun and exuberance shining through.  I wondered if Stychkina could have done a little more to bring out the distinctive character of the music.  However, this is a minor quibble and Alexandra Stychkina is clearly a major talent and someone to watch out for in future.

The teenage cellist, Danielle Akta, joined Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi at the start of the second half to perform a pair of contrasting works from the 19th Century.  Bruch’s Kol Nidrei was composed for Liverpool’s Jewish community and it uses two traditional Hebrew melodies.  Miss Akta gave an assured and richly evocative performance sustaining the line beautifully and working well with the Moscow Virtuosi.  David Popper’s Shining Polonaise was dispatched with virtuoso swagger with the soloist clearly relishing the extrovert writing and rising to the occasion magnificently.  There were some minor intonation issues but Danielle Akta quickly resolved these and again is clearly a star of the future.

I would love conductors to programme Piazzolla’s works much more often so I was pleased to see that Spivakov had included two works by the Argentinian composer at the end of the programme.   The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires were originally written for violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón between 1965 and 1970.  Piazzolla’s intention was that the four movements should be performed separately although he occasionally performed all four as a suite.  The Russian composer, Leonid Desyatnikov, made a new arrangement of the work for solo violin and string orchestra in the late 1990’s.   Four violinists from the Moscow Virtuosi took turns playing the solo part and all four did a splendid job.  The orchestra were highly responsive to the shifting nuevo tango rhythms and the passionate red hot atmosphere was evoked in a highly vivid way.  The succession of glissandi, ponticello and col legno effects were executed brilliantly by the soloists and the movements were in turn sultry, passionate, bright, uplifting and muscular.  This was a glorious performance of a work which I hope will be performed much more frequently in future.

The concert concluded with three more tangos by Piazzolla for accordion and string orchestra.  Nikita Vlasov gave a stylish and highly idiomatic performance of these works vying well with the Moscow Virtuosi who continued to perform the snap tango rhythms with relish.  Vlasov produced some gorgeous colouring particularly in the central slow movement and navigated his way well round Pazzolla’s dancing rhythms.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert that was warmly received by the audience.  No less than four encores followed; by Shostakovich, Gluck, Brahms and Piazzolla.

Robert Beattie