Music

Philharmonic of Russia: Off to a Slow Start

Vladimir Spivakov, artistic director of the National Philharmonic of Russia, led a problem-marred program of warhorses at the Kennedy Center.
Vladimir Spivakov, artistic director of the National Philharmonic of Russia, led a problem-marred program of warhorses at the Kennedy Center. (By Alexander Kurov)
By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 26, 2007

Formed only four years ago, the National Philharmonic of Russia made its Washington debut Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in an unimaginative program of warhorses by Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.

Artistic Director Vladimir Spivakov, a world-class violinist in addition to being a good, careful conductor, has work in front of him. It takes many years for any assemblage of musicians to learn to breathe and phrase together and to develop a signature sound. The NPR has highly capable players, but there were numerous details that betrayed its nascence. Woodwind and brass entries were often slightly staggered. The percussion missed cues. The strings were energetic but displayed little homogeneity, either in vibrato or bowing, with a concertmaster who appeared past his prime. The NPR, in short, lacks refinement.

Refinement, of course, is not a vital element of Shostakovich's bombastic "Festive Overture," which opened the concert. This vapid curtain-raiser requires velocity and volume, and the NPR provided plenty of both.

Olga Kern, a highly pedigreed young Russian pianist, joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2. Earlier press notices ("part actress and part conductor") had prepared me for a sort of female Lang Lang, throwing herself about, but this immensely talented artist turned in a performance that was dignified, controlled and almost majestic. While she had some abrupt (and unwritten) tempo gear shifts, particularly in the third movement, her rubato was elegant and natural. The highlight of the afternoon was the concerto's celebrated Adagio, where Spivakov created a gossamer halo around Kern's luscious phrases.

Encores by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev showed a little more of the young artist's waywardness, but Kern clearly has the goods for a major career.

Given how many times the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony has been heard in this town, a visiting band better have something interesting to say about it. Spivakov did bring some novel ideas, such as ending the first and last movements absolutely in tempo. But the pith of the conductor's job in this sprawling work lies in subtler tasks -- building and releasing tension on large time scales, creating internal episodes and relating them to the whole. Shostakovich's incessant dactylic rhythms often just sat there, and Spivakov brought none of Mstislav Rostropovich's anguish to the Largo (let alone Leonard Bernstein's). Overall, a long afternoon.


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