in: Reviews

May 2, 2012

Memorable Experience from Bashmet, Maisky

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Maestro Artist Management presented Yuri Bashmet conducting and playing viola with the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra  in Symphony Hall on Sunday. Mischa Maisky, cello, joined the ensemble for a Tchaikovsky Nocturne and a highly Romantic take on the Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1. Bashmet gave a gorgeous and persuasive reading of the Brahms Quintet in B Minor, Opus 115

The concert opened with Quartet in D, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden,”by Franz Schubert, arranged for chamber string orchestra by Gustav Mahler. This arrangement dates from roughly 1896, a time when orchestral versions of chamber music works graced symphonic programs. Mahler left behind detailed notes in a score of the Schubert quartet, and around 1984 these notes, thanks to Mahler’s daughter Anna, were realized as parts and published. The result is a new and sensitive setting of Schubert’s classic work. The Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra presented this Schubert/Mahler with four players each on first violin, second violin, and viola, three on cello, and one contrabass. This version has a greater density than as a string quartet, and the sound filled Symphony Hall. The flip side is that any slight discrepancy in pitch or bow change, and there were a few, was magnified and stood out in an unfortunate way. Despite these slips in the ensemble, there was much to enjoy in this opening piece on the program.

The opening Allegro announced the work and the range of dynamic possibilities accessible to a chamber orchestra performance. The second movement, Andante con moto, danced across a range of emotions from stately to trotting to sad to sweet. The Allegro molto began as much with an attaca as the audience noise levels would allow, all the musicians playing with verve and bite, the first theme sprightly and the second luxurious (more so with the augmented number of players from the original quartet scoring). In the Presto finale, the faster passages were less clear because of the greater number of players and the greater weight; this seems an unavoidable trade-off in Mahler’s arrangement, and I wonder if this is why it was never fully realized and performed in Mahler’s lifetime. Yuri Bashmet led the musicians to capture the spirit of Schubert’s work, painting dynamics and larger musical lines with his controlled gestures while maintaining a shared sense of rhythm and ensemble

After a slight re-arrangement of stage, Mischa Maisky walked on for Tchaikovsky, Nocturne in D for Cello and Orchestra, op. 19, No. 4. This piece, originally composed for piano in 1873 and transcribed by the composer for cello and piano or small orchestra around 1888, is richly resonant and alternates between a meditative a-section and a more energetic b-section; personally, I have never quite fathomed the connection between the music and the title of “Nocturne” that implies, to my mind, a different range of characteristics than this music conveys. Maisky gave a highly passionate, if slightly fast, and arrestingly idiosyncratic reading of this work.

Maisky remained on stage for the Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1 in C, H. 7b/1, here in an arranged orchestration that included neither two horns nor two oboes, only strings. There are many different Haydns, both within his œuvre and in performance traditions. This work, composed sometime between 1761 and 1765, was presumed lost until a copy of the score was found in the Prague National Museum in 1961. In the intervening 50 years, this work has become a staple of the cello repertoire. Written in sonata form (the finale in sonata allegro form), the concerto contrasts soloist and orchestra, and in the finale has the cello practically playing counterpoint with itself as it jumps between registers and lines. Although an 18th-century composition, this concerto presents possibilities for various musical interpretations. Maisky presented a highly Romantic take on Haydn, a performance that was weighty, with no Classical reserve or decorum, but some oddly placed instances of rubato. The cadenzas, noticeably short, were seemingly Maisky’s own, embracing minor modalities and decidedly post-Classical harmonies. The opening Moderato was taken more Vivace; the middle Adagio was likewise fast. The finale, Allegro molto, featured col legno bowing (the strings struck, battuto, with the wood of the bow rather than drawn with the hair) – a technique which may have originated in the music of Tobias Hume in 1605, better known in Biber’s 1673 La Battalia Sinfonia, but usually heard in music of Chopin, Berlioz, and later. I was not convinced by its use here, where it detracts from a certain clarity and crispness that mark this concerto. In general, Maisky played with great exuberance; unfortunately this led to less than perfect pitch and some issues with tone production. Recalled to the stage, Maisky offered as an encore the well-known Boccherini Minuet, which again was weightier than the customary lightness one hears in this piece. When I realized he was offering an encore, I expected to hear one of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations; it would have been a fitting piece on this concert, since it is music more grounded in 19th-century Imperial Russia than in the 18th century – not unlike Maisky’s take on Haydn.

Following intermission, Bashmet and the orchestra returned to the stage for the Brahms Quintet in B  Minor, op. 115. This late quintet was originally composed for clarinet and string quartet; Bashmet on viola took over the clarinet line for the duration of this 35-minute work, and the strings alternated between one player per part and the whole, small, ensemble of the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra. A lovely piece of chamber music writing and a great example of late Brahms style, this work has been described as autumnal. If it has a flaw, it is that it remains monochromatic – the autumnal spirit and tone pervading the work as a whole. The solo line is apt for the timbre of a viola, and Yuri Bashmet gave a gorgeous and persuasive reading of this work. Hearing this quintet was worth the price of admission.

The concert ended with an encore presentation by the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra. Since they are celebrating their twentieth anniversary, the chosen piece was “Happy Birthday,” played first in its traditional form as thema, then as a series of variations: a Polka from Vienna, a tango from Buenos Aires in the style of Piazzolla, finally a Csárdás from Budapest. Not the most taxing music, but well-played and fun.

I wish I knew more about the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra. The “program” (for those lucky few who obtained one) consisted of a xeroxed sheet of letter-size paper, listing the order of music on the program. Surely Maestro Artist Management could produce a proper program with details about the musicians! The website of the Mariinsky Theatre offers a history of the group over the past 20 years, plus the publicity photo which appears on posters for this concert. It says nothing of the musicians who comprise this chamber orchestra, except that the web page appears under the heading of “Company.” Since I was seated in the orchestra, house left, I could see the cellists; was the principal cellist in the chamber orchestra the principal of the Mariinsky Orchestra, Zenon Zalitsailo, “Honoured Artist of Russia” (as he is designated on the website)? Maybe, but he is not so honored in his anonymity (assuming it is he). In the absence of details in the program I may never know. Shame. I would have rather heard the Haydn Cello Concerto performed by anonymous principal cellist in the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra than the version I did hear performed by Mischa Maisky. I may never have the opportunity, since I have no idea of that cellist’s name. It is completely disrespectful of the musicians, their training and their commitment to these concerts, for them to remain anonymous.

Finally, I must say that I grow accustomed – wearied, annoyed, sadly inured – to cell phones ringing during concerts. I attend concerts to concentrate my hearing on the music, not the mechanical sounds chosen by random audience members to get their attention (and that of everyone around them). There were several prominent cell phone rings last night, even delaying the start of one piece on the program. However, I cannot remember the last time I attended a concert where someone actually took the call. Words fail me.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

2 Comments

  1. Prince, here is the link for you – the artists of the Moscow Chamber Soloists.

    http://vk.com/album-12582574_97637976

    Clicking the images you get the short biographies, the instruments they play and so on. The text unfortunately in Russian, you might use online-translators if you wish.

    I did not expect anything less from this orchestras – they are known to be high caliber and very capable. It was not the best Sound I heard in Symphony Hall lately from a chamber group but it was a noble and professional play.  I do not feel that Maisky play was as compromised as you descried. But I do not look in live performed music for any academic perfection but rather I look for ecstatic stimulation and Mischa Maisky did show a lot of it.  How many times you walked away from Haydn Cello Concerto not being annoyed, board or disappointed but rather to be cheerful and exuberant? I do not how about you but I felt extremely HAPPY after Maisky’s play, and it is not so easy to make the mean and cynic Cat like me to be happy. I just wish they put the whole Maisky even in the second part of concert and I think that the first part was more valuable.   The opening of Andante from Schubert/Mahler Quartet was the best thing that the Moscow Chamber showed in that evening.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — May 2, 2012 at 1:51 pm

  2. It may have been hard to see from your seat on the floor, but the orchestra had four first and four second violins, five violas (not including Mr. Bashmet; three of them shared the second stand), three cellos, and one bass. I quite liked the prominence of the viola part that resulted.
    I too was puzzled at the shortage of, and minimal information in, the concert programs. Surely the audience wasn’t that much larger than the promoters anticipated as to cause them to run out so quickly! I was not alone in looking for what information I could glean via my iPhone during the concert.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — May 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm

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