In 2008, the Russian violinist Vadim Repin made a memorable D.C. recital debut at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. On Friday night, his performance at Strathmore, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, wasn’t so much memorable as merely indifferent.
The program, certainly, offered promise of the kind of subtlety and range that had characterized his earlier performance: from sonatas by Janacek, Ravel and Grieg to the familiar and fiendish showpiece of Ravel’s “Tzigane.” But the expressive gestures, here, too often seemed set off in quotation marks, starting with the first piece, the Janacek sonata. Like much of Janacek’s work, this piece has a conversational flavor, with the violin and piano exchanging thoughts, interrupting each other, breaking off mid-sentence. Repin and his sometimes raucous pianist, Italmar Golan, played up the underlying humor, which was welcome, but they also courted the obvious: like the violin’s aggressive sentence fragments in the third movement, which verged on the clownish.
Repin has a way with French music; but on Friday the Gallic throatiness of his approach, so wonderfully nuanced at his last appearance, often coarsened, in the Ravel G Major sonata and Chausson’s “Poème,” into the equivalent of a stereotypical lascivious whisper. The violinist seemed so focused on telegraphing what he was trying to do to the audience that he wasn’t focusing enough on basic things like intonation (which, sadly and surprisingly, wasn’t very good).
There were certainly things to like. It was one of the rare times when I’ve heard classical musicians take on Ravel’s jazz-influenced sonata without sounding like square kids trying to be hip. Repin and Golan didn’t seem too worried about what it was supposed to sound like, instead making it their own in a wild sort of free-jazz equivalent. This would have been all the more welcome had it been a little better played.
One hopes that this was just a case of a great violinist on an off night, when nothing quite lined up the way it should have — even the Grieg, which he played from memory, was manic — rather than evidence that he has lost his edge. It was a night that reminded a listener of what a grind classical music can sometimes be for its performers, trying to produce to their usual standard when their hearts may not be in it, offering the audience what they think they’ll like, ending with a tangled but showy reading of the “Tzigane” (again, too often out of tune) and a couple of bagatelle encores (Ponce’s “Estrellita” and Kreisler’s “Tambourin chinois”). I’m not saying Repin necessarily felt this way. But this is what his concert evoked.