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Cloudy Skies for Russian Stars

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing to ionarts again with this review of the National Symphony Orchestra's concert. You can read his latest column for InsideCatholic here.

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Brahms, Violin (& Double) Concerto(s),
Repin / Chailly / Gewandhaus
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Sergei Prokofiev, Symphonies,
Järvi / Scottish NO
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Prokofiev, Khachaturian, DSCH, Russian Ballet Suites,
Vedernikov / Russian NO
On Thursday night, November 5th, the Russian stars were out on a cloudy night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where Alexander Vedernikov took the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra to play the Brahms Violin Concerto, with violinist Vadim Repin, and the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5. The clouds were inside, however, not out, about which more anon.

The stars shone most brightly during the Brahms Concerto. It was not a particularly urgent performance, nor was it in any way slack. It was down the middle, perhaps leaning in the direction not of Brahms’s progenitor, Beethoven, but more toward Tchaikovsky and his gorgeous long-lined melodies.

In the publicity blurbs for Repin’s recording of this concerto on Deutsche Grammophon, I think I saw that it was considered by the British press as a statement of real “stature,” but also highly “poetic.” Stature did not come to mind Thursday night so much as poetry, which is fine when the melodies that Brahms employed in this work are so beautiful. Repin is obviously a master and fully in command of this piece with the orchestra fully engaged as the themes were tossed back and forth with soloist in this relaxed, lyrical approach. Soloist and orchestra certainly captured together the gypsy jeu d’esprit of the last movement’s Allergro giocoso.

The cloud cover began to thicken at the opening of the Prokofiev Fifth. The beginning of the first movement was positively soporific. In this work Prokofiev said (however silly it sounds of agitprop) that he was singing “the praises of the free and happy man.” This left me to ponder, if this is Vedernikov’s version of a happy man, what must the constrained and unhappy man sound like? Absent from this movement was its hushed sense of mystery and expectancy, and any underlying energy—no juice, no passion. Things did stir to life half way through, but then subsided. The brass outbursts near the end are meant to sound minatory, like the deepest rumblings of Russian basses. Here, they simply sounded blatty, like a flatulent product of orchestral indigestion—a moment of dark majesty reduced to farce. The failure to express the grandeur at which Prokofiev aimed was the conductor’s, not the orchestra’s.

All of sudden, with the start of the second movement, the clouds cleared and Prokofiev sprang to balletic life. Yes, this was recognizable Prokofiev with verve, vivacity and a spring in its step. The playing of the NSO was highly alert, completely on point. Everyone seemed as if they were having fun with the Allegro marcato. The lovely Adagio began with promise but then became a bit enervated by a sense of drag in the tempo. Vedernikov’s slow tempi laid bare the textures of Prokofiev’s music and, thanks to the NSO’s playing, this made for some moments of compensating beauty. The last movement, except for some signs of life at the very end, was routine.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Cheap thrills: the NSO flirts with vulgarity in Russian program (Washington Post, November 6)
In short, Vedernikov did not succeed in capturing the underlying experience that this music was seeking to express. It was not simply a matter of his slow tempi. Yevgeny Mravinsky could conduct Prokofiev at same tempi and leave you with your eyebrows singed off. With Vedernikov, there was little sense of digging into the music. Thus, it only fitfully came to life in a low wattage performance. I wish I could say that it is going to get better in the next two performances, but I think it is a matter of interpretive choice. Obviously, the audience disagreed with me because it gave Vedernikov a standing ovation. I’d wager that if they heard someone like Neeme Järvi give the Fifth the performance it deserves, they would have to levitate.

(The program is repeated Friday evening, November 6, at 8:00 PM, and Saturday evening, November 7, at 8:00 PM.)

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