Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven
Pinchas Zukerman and the Camerata Salzburg brought chamber music to the stage of the Khachaturian Hall. They provided beautiful and delicate playing, but had a hard time filling the large hall with sound, particularly the strings, who foud themselves regularly overwhelmed by the winds, who were certainly not themselves overplaying.
This issue became apparent right from the first piece: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. Without thicker strings, the dischords Stravinsky intentionally put in the winds stood out more, making this neo-classical work odder than the composer intended. For Mozart’s Haffner Serenade, with Zukerman conducting with his violin, the situation improved somewhat. Still, Zukerman got a lush sound from his instrument, and it easily left the stage and reached our ears, which contrasted with the subdued Camerata strings.
The balance finally worked after the intermission, for Beethoven’s Romance #1 for Violin and Orchestra. Essentially a work for solo violin augmented by chamber orchestra, Zukerman took over the playing more assertively, and the orchestra did not need to stand out but rather just had to back him up. And with their gorgeous playing, they did just that.
Mozart’s Symphony #39 closed the program. Here, the strings put a little more oompf into their playing, but again the wind section dominated. An encore Mozart menuetto, scored with limited wind lines, demonstrated that the strings, playing almost alone, could make a bigger impact, even in this cavernous hall. I just left wondering if maybe they need to perform in a more intimate venue.
Yerkanyan, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky
The Armenian Philharmonic sounded especially good tonight. Not surprisingly, it did so under the baton of Eduard Topchjan, who continues to be the only person who can get good noises from this gang. The star attraction this evening, however, was Steven Isserlis, the soloist for the second work on the program: Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto.
This was an unusual composition, mixing as it did a mechanized symphonic backdrop typical of Russian composers from the 1930s, perhaps the darkest decade in Russia’s already dark history, with lyrical solo lines. If the lines were not fully lyrical, Isserlis made them so. Isserlis treats the cello as his dance partner, even if he never does leave the chair the two of them spin around in place together.
Preceding the Prokofiev piece, Misteria by Armenian composer Yervand Yerkanyan opened the program. The music was pleasant enough, in a pseudo-mystic sort of way, but never seemed to go anywhere. Maybe it was not supposed to. Maybe that was the mystery.
Almost half the audience failed to return to the Khachaturian Hall for the second half of the concert, and they made a big mistake. Topchjan led an inspired performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in its Ravel orchestration. A highly-regarded but generally over-rated orchestrator, Ravel exceeded his talents with this work – other attempts to orchestrate the Pictures have not come close. Topchjan clearly knew every aspect and each instrument’s strength, bringing out lines here and nuances there which often get overlooked, showcasing Ravel’s accomplishment even more. The Orchestra responded passionately, and without the usual squeeks and missed cues I have gotten used to here in Yerevan. Tonight the Maestro had them on.
While its wonderful neo-Persian Opera House is still undergoing renovations (after almost four years since it closed, the renovations are almost done by the look of it), the Tbilisi State Opera continues to perform in other venues. Tonight it did a fantastic concert version of Puccini’s Tosca in the Tbilisi Conservatory.
Tosca‘s music alone has enough drama to survive unstaged, but it certainly helps to have a team like tonight’s that could make the drama unfold without the benefit of a staging. The State Opera Orchestra produced a full sound under the steady baton of Giorgi Zhordania. The climax of the first act nearly blew the roof off the Conservatory, whose main hall really is not that large, all the while keeping a very fine sound, swelling and ebbing as required to enunciate the plot. I’d love to pack them up and take them back to Yerevan with me.
From the cast, Giorgi Oniani as Mario Cavaradossi and Nikoloz Ligvilava as Baron Scarpia excelled. Oniani’s piercing tenor also effortlessly switched over to mezza voce as often required in this opera but not always achieved by many singers, although sometimes his voice lapsed into dry patches. Ligvilava gave a menacing portrayal of the villainous Scarpia, in control of the plot right up to the point that Tosca murders him (but then, of course, getting his revenge beyond the grave). Both probably speak Italian, or at least have sufficient familiarity to act their roles convincingly in the absence of a staging – they did not merely sing the notes, but also demonstrated they knew what they sang.
Unfortunately, Maqvala Askanidze did not do the same justice to the role of Floria Tosca. Her voice failed to hit notes cleanly, wobbling around each note instead. To overcome this failing, she often resorted to screaming, which had the benefit of lacking the wobble but simply became unpleasant. We got stuck with her right to the end: Tosca has the last line. Still, the title role aside, the stars shone for tonight’s performance.