Pity the poor kid of only average musical ability in the provincial Russian town of Novosibirsk, say 20 years ago. The smallish city, capital of Western Siberia, has given rise to two of the world's most renowned young violinists--Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin--both in their twenties, both blessed with prominent recording contracts, both regulars on the star soloist circuit. The Novosibirsk talent show must have been a nightmare for kids struggling through folk songs on the balalaika.
Repin, who appeared on short notice with the National Symphony Orchestra in January 1998, returned to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night to perform Edouard Lalo's sprawling, five-movement violin concerto, the "Symphonie Espagnole." Of the two Siberian violinists, the 27-year-old Repin is better suited to this kind of music, with its "Carmen"-like Spanish and Gypsy flair. He is a gutsy player, never crude, but willing to dig into the instrument and draw forth raw and sensual sounds.
Repin is also fortunate to play on the 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius, the same instrument on which the legendary Pablo de Sarasate premiered the work in 1875. The "Ruby" Strad is one of the loveliest violins in the world, rich and throaty, masculine and vibrantly clear in the upper reaches. It blazes through orchestral textures and is perfectly suited to Lalo's rough-edged, seguidilla-inspired melodic flourishes--bursts of proud melody that unfurl and snap like a bullfighter's cloak.
Repin takes full advantage of his instrument (which was loaned to him by the Stradivari Society in Chicago). He leans into the tone, producing large, warm sounds that rarely become mushy. He allows the instrument's tonal luster to speak for itself, performing with the right mix of reserve and cool theatricality that is fundamental to this Paris-meets-Seville French style.
Yet last night Repin suffered from a familiar touring-soloist syndrome. He made beautiful sounds but was fundamentally playing in his own, isolated world. Under the direction of the NSO's assistant conductor, Takao Kanayama, the orchestra had a great deal of musical substance to attend to. Lalo's accompaniment is rich in detail, filled with polychrome orchestral effects and variegated inner lines, like a building by Antonio Gaudi.
Yet these particulars were only loosely coordinated with Repin's playing. Attacks were not perfectly timed, fast-moving woodwind lines didn't always line up with Repin's more rhythmically fluid playing, and the whole thing felt a bit approximate. That left Repin to play through, not with, the backup band, which emphasized his virtuosity but detracted from the ultimate effect of the composition.
The same problems dogged an ardent but imprecise reading of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. This oceanic score demands more than just enthusiasm. To make music that calls for a continual, incremental buildup of sentiment work is as much a matter of technical craftsmanship as of emotional engagement. Small infelicities of ensemble can shatter the illusions of grandeur and depth that Rachmaninoff aspires to. Last night, the first violinists broke the spell with a variety of approaches to slow-moving lines in the Adagio, changing from note to note with staggered attacks. Horn and brass entrances were also slightly off throughout the first and fourth movements. And the big, upper-string bear hug that opens the third movement was a bit bony-armed.
Kanayama's program included two novelties by Toru Takemitsu, the independent-minded Japanese composer who died in 1996. Two works originally written as movie scores, rearranged in 1994 into simple but effective movements for string orchestra, offered a new angle for a composer remembered mainly for his highly metaphysical, East-meets-West later works. Music from 1959's "Jose Torres" and 1966's "Face of Another" showed a unique understanding of film music. They are decidedly background pieces, but in the very best sense: music that is intentionally low-key, but not low-quality. They have none of the literalness of American film music, but a muted, carefully calculated color palette. They tell nothing about what is happening on the screen, but they do give one a sense of what the image must have felt like.