Privileged to grow up near the Big Apple, I was star struck in the 1950s by the great string players with both Jewish and Slavic roots who packed Carnegie Hall: Heifetz (always first), Menuhin, Milstein, Morini, Piatigorsky, Shumsky, Spivakovsky, Stern, Szeryng, Szigeti, to name a few. And in that decade, visits by David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan brought enormous excitement, as the Iron Curtain parted just enough to let them slip through and take the Western world by storm. But then there was a skip of a generation, with Gidon Kremer one of few renowned players, and several pedagogues carrying the tradition forward so that today, young Russians are prominent again, with Gringolts, Kaler, Repin and Vengerov as brilliant ambassadors.
Vladimir Spivakov, a student of Oistrakh, also bridges those generations. He is highly prominent in Moscow, but known better in this country as the founder and loyal conductor of the Moscow Virtuosi, a redoubtable group that played Rossini with unreasonable speed and brilliance when I heard them almost 30 years ago. Now starting an extensive tour of the USA, he played to a large, and almost entirely Russian crowd in Sanders Theatre last Friday, February 17, joined by Olga Kern, the pianist who shared the Gold Medal in the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition and gained instant fame from the fine documentary, Playing on the Edge, that memorialized that year’s struggle. A video excerpt is here.
The order of their program worked well, although at first blush it seemed strange. I can’t recall the Brahms Third Sonata in D-minor (op.108) starting off a concert; it usually occupies the second half, and often tops off a recital. Of the three complete sonatas for violin and piano, this is Brahms’s biggie, his “Kreutzer” equivalent, particularly when contrasted with the far more intimate pair that preceded it. But Spivakov and Kern indicated right away that the evening would be different. In the first movement, they downplayed drama as Spivakov, in particular, was happy to play quietly in a lyrical, flowing voice that spun long lines modulated by subtle rubato, in contrast to the architectural heft that Isaac Stern, for example, brought to this work. The slow movement challenges a fiddler with double-stopped thirds way up in the stratosphere, and not only did Spivakov not blink, he played them in strict rhythm, a refreshing contrast to many players who seem so happy to land on them safely that they linger and distort the line. The Scherzo was graceful and understated, contrasting nicely with the last movement, played by both as a wonderfully bombastic race. It seemed to energize Kern, who until then was attentive, contributing to first rate ensemble, but to my ear lacking imagination and variation in her sound. In striking contrast to her partner, she was loud or soft, without an awful lot between, and there was little rhythmic ebb and flow.
Next came Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne.” Drawing first on Pergolesi themes that evolved into “Pulcinella,” this suite is a charming vehicle for alerting the ear to the Stravinsky idiom and for allowing a violinist to demonstrate myriad colors, rhythmic thrust coupled with freedom, and ample virtuosity. A modest work, it asks the violinist both to make music and to show off, and Spivakov did just that. His flying staccato was breathtaking; glissandi were dramatic; intonation never faltered. And while his sound is not enormous (hard to judge in Sanders), it is warm and beguiling. His vibrato varies all the time and, along with constantly changing bow position and speed, he demonstrates a broad palate of sound. Spivakov also doesn’t do things by the book. Surprises abound, and the audience is constantly the beneficiary. He’s a subtle showman. His feet don’t move, but he sways gently, bobs and weaves with small motions, and when he wants the violin to overwhelm he points it high into the sky. Russian acquaintances tell me he is a hero in Moscow, and those who want to be unkind mention Liberace when his name comes up. But I liked the showmanship and didn’t find the visual spectacle overdone. Certainly, the writhing, orgasmic movements seen all too often today were nowhere in evidence.
After the intermission, a short, one movement work by Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel, came close to stealing the show. Dedicated to Spivakov, Pärt wrote this work in 1978, shortly before departing Estonia for Berlin. He had developed a technique he described as “tintinnabulation,” and this calm, exquisitely centered work is a gem. The pianist’s right hand plays the chimes, broken chords in triplets, and the left hand comments low, then high. Kern, in her second gown of the evening, looked like a ballet dancer as her left hand drifted up, lingered, then came down. And during this, the violin plays slow scales, with Spivakov giving each note a different texture and weight. It’s hard to describe, but absolutely wonderful to hear.
The final scheduled work was the Cesar Franck A Major Sonata. I wasn’t looking forward to hearing that yet again. It’s in high fashion right now, hard to escape, and I’ve long felt it’s probably more fun for performers than for audiences. But this was purely and simply the best performance of the famed sonata I’ve heard, and I loved it. Spivakov used his vocal qualities to amazing advantage. The first movement sounded entirely improvisatory, and I suspect Franck would have been thrilled. The following Allegro was full of life and brilliance, and the Recitative-Fantasia that precedes the famed last movement was again filled with imagination and wonderful surprise. In the last movement, one felt that Spivakov was inviting his partner to take the lead. Kern responded with sparkling virtuosity and quite a bit of freedom. The duo rightly brought down the house, and the 3 encores that followed, a habanera, Hungarian dance, and a waltz were perfectly chosen to emphasize the plasticity and grace in Spivakov’s playing.
All and all, without trying in any way to detract from a terrific evening, I have to confess a little disappointment in Kern’s playing, especially since she has a larger following here than does Spivakov. He gets high marks for inviting a partner of her stature, because she has brilliant fingers and is no shrinking violet, in contrast to many of the pianists chosen by the violinists I heard in my youth. But she’s not there yet. Perhaps it was the Yamaha that glittered visually, but not sonically, at full stick; perhaps it was an off night for her or me. I generally missed imagination, dynamic contrasts, and a strong left hand.
Spivakov may have spent a lot of time over the years with a baton, but throughout the evening his bow arm conducted his fine “Hrimaly” Stradivari (300 years old this year) with terrific imagination, fluidity, variety, and control. How do the Russians gain such extraordinary command of the violin? Certainly, we should be delighted that Spivakov has taken up his violin as he began, and I hope many of the famed fiddlers of today’s American scene seek him out and learn from him. He may not have quite the distinctive voice of some of his forebears, but he’s the real thing and has a lot to say and teach us all. When he visits next, every string player around should be in the audience.
Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the sixteenth century on.