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Music Reviews: BSO, Geringas Baryton Trio, National Philharmonic of Russia

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On Friday night, the Library of Congress presented the Geringas Baryton Trio in a concert that explored the connections between Haydn and Italian music. Next month is the 200th anniversary of Haydn's death, and audiences should be happy for any excuse to hear more of his music on local concert programs, especially when played with such verve and musicality.

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Prince Nikolaus Eszterházy, Haydn's music-loving employer, had a soft spot for the baryton, a nutty old instrument somewhat like a viola da gamba, with extra strings that resonate sympathetically above the sound box. Haydn wrote almost 200 works for it, greater than the number of his symphonies and string quartets combined. Haydn scholars often extol the beauty of the baryton trios especially, lamenting that the scarcity of the instrument today means that much good music lies forgotten. A couple decades ago, David Geringas, a cellist and former student of Mstislav Rostropovich, took up the baryton to find out for himself.

The combination of baryton, viola and cello created a somber, earthy timbre in two trios, Hob. XI: 82 and 97, the latter composed especially for the prince's birthday in 1778. One of Haydn's duets for two barytons, in an arrangement for two cellos, featured spectacular embellishments traded back and forth between Geringas and his former student, the group's cellist, Jens-Peter Maintz. The Italian selections were less pleasing but were of interest as relative rarities, especially a baryton trio by Luigi Tomasini, who worked in the Eszterházy court alongside Haydn. Encores by Boccherini and Paganini served as desserts on this tasting menu of extravagant delicacies.

-- Charles T. Downey

NATIONAL PHILHARMONIC OF RUSSIA

Russian conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov is something of a celebrity in his homeland. Even casual classical music lovers swoon at the sound of his name. He's the American equivalent of -- oh wait, there are no American conductors who are household names. (Sorry, Marin Alsop. Maybe someday.) But knowing a little bit more about Spivakov's stature helps explain why his orchestra gave not one, not two, but three encores Friday night at George Mason University. The Russian emigrants in the audience hollering "bravo" just wouldn't let him go.

Whether the National Philharmonic of Russia deserved lavish praise for this particular performance is another matter. This orchestra, formed in 2003 to serve as a "cultural ambassador" for post-Soviet Russia, is nearly through a 30-day, 36-concert tour of the United States. The musicians seemed tired, and the evening got off to a soporific start with Liadov's "The Enchanted Lake." Next up was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Denis Matsuev, a bear of a pianist, hunched over the Steinway clawing out giant chords. After each emotional pounding, he would violently jerk his body backward, as if he'd just been shot. This was distracting, and while Matsuev is an impressive pianist, his authoritative style didn't always mesh with the more lyrical phrasing Spivakov was coaxing from the orchestra.

Things really got rolling after intermission, when the philharmonic offered two beautifully contrasting "Romeo and Juliets," first Tchaikovsky's sublime overture, then four razor-sharp movements from two Prokofiev suites. The orchestra killed Tybalt with such gusto, they hardly seemed the same players who opened the evening. And they were just warming up. Rousing encores with pieces by Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian and Jiménez followed, as did thunderous applause honoring a Russian icon.

-- Rebecca J. Ritzel


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