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S & H International Concert Review

Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3, Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, Hélène Grimaud, piano, Russian National Orchestra, Alexander Vedernikov, conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 3, 2004 (BH)


The extroverted program by the Russian National Orchestra had to wait a minute to launch, while conductor Alexander Vedernikov offered a brief, gently somber opening, Tchaikovsky’s Melodrama from The Snow Maiden, in memory of Robert J. Harth, Carnegie’s former Executive Director who died suddenly last week, shocking music lovers everywhere. But Harth surely would have wanted this sonic national treasure to continue presenting great music by world-class performers, uninterrupted. I salute him and his vision, all sadly cut short, and hope that wherever he is, he’s hearing something glorious.

He surely would have been delighted with the fizzing performance of the Festive Overture. It seems strange that this piece isn’t performed very often, since it has everything to recommend it, either as a curtain raiser or an encore, especially when performed with the kind of spirit and energy Vedernikov demonstrated here. The piece teeters precariously toward the trite, but the composer never allows it to lapse into anything less than sheer aural pleasure, and Vedernikov gave it a propulsive tempo and beautiful pacing.

The Fifth Symphony is one of the composer’s greatest, and here, although dispatched with many fine moments throughout, there were too many distractions to call it a truly great performance. At the end of the first movement, just as the celesta made its delicate ascent, it became intermingled with a mobile phone that, infuriatingly, chose the quietest moment in the entire movement to make its obnoxious presence known. (A rhetorical rant, I know, but is there no end to this plague?) And all around me were people twitching, coughing, snoring, and humming along with the music and rustling purses and bags, a much more restless audience than usual. Welcome, Vedernikov and musicians, and thank you for traveling almost 5,000 miles to the United States – so we can get some sleep.

Ultimately, as much as I generally admired Vedernikov’s work, the performance seemed to be missing a certain irony; the blazing final movement felt like a showpiece for the orchestra – but no more – and unfortunately the group wasn’t quite playing up to that level. Occasional woodwind and brass intonation problems effectively sabotaged some of the tension, although the RNO strings were able to maintain some of the energy with their concentrated tone.

The Bartók, fine as it was, perhaps needed a different style to make it really take flight. Hélène Grimaud, an outstanding musician who performed the part from memory, sounded impressively present and confident, making a huge sound (apparently using a Hamburg Steinway, for those interested). Some of the more prominent hammered notes at the far left end of the keyboard came through more clearly than usual, as they are sometimes drowned out by the orchestral texture. But ultimately I prefer a drier, steelier approach to the piece, with a little less pedal.

There were two encores, both very well done, and with a bit of psychic weirdness for your writer, just to keep him on his toes. After the first, a rousing Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, I whispered to my companions, "They should do the Russian dance from The Nutcracker." As if the universe were nodding in agreement, the Trepak appeared, led by a jaunty Vedernikov who casually left the podium before the final bars.

Bruce Hodges




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