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Moscow Soloists Turn 20

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Schubert, String Quartet ("Death and the Maiden," arr. G. Mahler), Moscow Soloists, Y. Bashmet

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Haydn, Cello Concertos, A. Gastinel, Moscow Soloists, Y. Bashmet

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Brahms, Quintet in B Minor (op. 115, arr. Y. Bashmet), Moscow Soloists, Y. Bashmet
The Moscow Soloists chamber orchestra celebrates its 20th anniversary this year (officially, on May 19), and their victory lap through North American included a stop in the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday night. Unlike their last visit to the area, a 2007 concert at the Library of Congress, the programming of this concert was more staid, featuring some of the ensemble's greatest hits over the years, including some of their signature arrangements of chamber music for a small complement of seventeen strings. Unfortunately, these performances suffered by comparison to memories of the group's glory days, as did the solo turn of the group's founder, violist Yuri Bashmet, in his much-admired arrangement of the Brahms B minor clarinet quintet.

The best reason to hear this concert, by far, was the guest solo appearance of inimitable cellist Mischa Maisky. My aversion to Tchaikovsky's syrupy music is probably too well known, but there is no one I would rather hear in a piece like that composer's D minor nocturne, arranged for cello and chamber orchestra from the piano original (Six morceaux, op. 19/4). Maisky played this little bonbon as an encore during a 2010 performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, and once again he played it with a fluid, striking sense of rubato, spontaneous in its shifts, mingling effortlessly with the solo violin descanting above him.

While Maisky is generally not my first choice for music before about 1840 (as in his rendition of the Bach cello suites at the National Gallery of Art in 2004), he brought a sense of verve and lyricism to Haydn's C major cello concerto (H. 7b/1). It was perhaps not as stylistically fluent as the performance of Anne Gastinel, who recorded the Haydn concertos with the Moscow Soloists (and had the added benefit of the oboes and horns called for in the score but omitted here), but it was distinctive, especially the warm interior reflection of the slow movement. To mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Mstislav Rostropovich (April 27, 2007), one of Maisky's former mentors and a local hero because of his leadership of the National Symphony Orchestra, Maisky and the ensemble offered the Pablo Casals arrangement of the Catalan folk song El Cant dels Ocells, a meditative end to the first half.

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Robert Battey, Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore (Washington Post, April 30)
It was not really clear how much Yuri Bashmet's odd conducting helped or hindered the performance. At times, the musicians seemed to be looking more to their section leaders or to Maisky when he was on stage. His work in rehearsal seemed to have been useful, since the orchestra had some good ideas about shaping lines with a marked sense of crescendo and diminuendo, although the style of playing was often unnecessarily angular. Gustav Mahler's chamber orchestra arrangement of Schubert's devastating D minor string quartet (D. 810, "Death and the Maiden"), is worth a listen, although frankly it is silly to think you could improve on that piece. Straight tone from many of the players made some interesting effects but played havoc with intonation, particularly among the violins. Balance was generally good, although the expansion of the Brahms B minor quintet, op. 115, made the clarinet solo part, transferred to viola, very difficult to hear and not particularly effective.

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