Vangelis, CPE Bach, Haydn, Gerard, Schnittke, Schubert

Of performing artists in Russia today, there is perhaps no greater cult figure (other than possibly Valery Gergiev) than the violist Yury Bashmet.  His concerts sell out instantly.  So I considered myself extremely lucky to get a ticket tonight for a concert dedicated to the memory of Mstislav Rostropovich, with Bashmet leading his own chamber ensemble, the Moscow Soloists.

Fittingly for a concert memorializing Rostropovich (and considering this was also the opening concert of a week-long cello festival), the first half of the concert was dedicated to works with solo cello.  The concert opened with the festival’s director Boris Andrianov performing the solo part in a work by Euangelos Odysseas Papathanasiou, better known by his pen-name “Vangelis.”  He is also better known as a composer of electronic music for synthesizer, often used in movie scores (including Chariots of Fire), but apparently he also does serious orchestral music.  His Elegy for Violoncello and Orchestra received its world premiere tonight.  Classical in scope, romantic in harmony, this moody piece set a nice warm tone, focussing the frame of reference in the Moscow Philharmonia’s large Stalinist amphitheater, the Tschaikowsky Hall, which might otherwise swallow such a small chamber ensemble.

Next up, Aleksandr Rudin performed the solo cello for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Cello Concerto in A.  His style contrasted with Andrianov – not quite warm, but more robust.  This provided a useful contrast with the orchestra, highlighting his nimble solo work against the backdrop.  Otherwise, with such a talented orchestra, the solo parts might get lost.  This aggressive approach worked especially well during the outer movements, but less so during the slow middle movement, which tended to drag.

Steven Isserlis provided yet another style of playing in performing Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto.  He embraced his cello in his arms and gave it a gentle massage.  In return, his instrument purred, producing a full and exceptionally complex tone.  Once again, Bashmet’s  Moscow Soloists supported the main soloist.  Soloists must indeed find it especially rewarding to play in front of such an ensemble.

The first half of the concert concluded with Andrianov and Rudin returning to the stage with a handful of members of the Moscow Soloists for the world premiere of the “Last Lullaby” by Arthur Gerard.  I have never heard of this composer, the program notes provided no clue, nor did an internet search turn up anything for me.  His “Lullaby” came across as more of a nightmare – like trying to fall asleep in a room full of loudly-ticking clocks.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  TICK-TOCK.  TICK-TOCK.  This piece got annoying in a hurry.

The concert’s second half opened with Schnittke’Monologue for Viola and Strings, with Bashmet playing the solo parts while conducting the rest with his bow.  Bashmet once famously answered a question about why he had taken up conducting by explaining that composers simply had not written enough solo music for viola to keep him employed as a violist.  So I suppose that when a composer did write a solo piece for viola, he gets stuck with it in his repertory.  Through his skill and dexterity, he produced some amazing noises with his instrument, not all of them unpleasant.  However, by the end of the third movement, I, too, wished that some composer might attempt to write some actual music for him to play.

The concert came to an absolutely thrilling conclusion with a performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, in the orchestration for string orchestra by Mahler.  Bashmet conducted a driven, dynamic performance, which became delicate at all the right moments.  Wow.  This I had to hear.

Classical music remains one thing that Russians do well.  Unfortunately, the Russian audiences do not deserve these performances.  Applause between every movement was not motivated by uncontrollable reactions to outstanding performances but rather from poor education from people who looked bored (when the correct time came for applause, it was no louder – indeed, I don’t think this audience came close to appreciating the performances tonight).  While people who leave their mobile phones on during concerts are disgusting enough, if their phones do ring then they need to turn them off, not let them ring and ring and ring (and ring again when the callers try again).  Talking to each other they could do at home without stepping outside in the fall weather, and thus they could also avoid the colds that had several people hacking up their lungs throughout the evening.  And the two gay men in the row in front of me should have used their money to buy a hotel room instead of concert tickets – foreplay in public in full view is just not acceptable (the poor Japanese women sitting directly behind them, unable to watch the stage without also watching this couple’s performance, seemed especially traumatized).  Boo, audience.

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