Sunday, February 19, 2012


February 10
February 17

Sinaisky takes the Czech Philharmonic higher.

Russian politics may be unpalatable, but the country turns out first-rate musicians. Two visiting conductors offered a recent reminder of how good the Russian repertoire can sound in the right hands – and what a difference a skilled conductor can make in an orchestra’s performance.

Vassily Sinaisky has been a world-class talent since 1973, when he won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Karjan Competition in Berlin. He has held significant positions with orchestras in the Netherlands, Latvia, England and Sweden, as well as key posts in his own country, including chief conductor and music director of the Moscow Philharmonic, and currently, chief conductor and music director of the Bolshoi Theatre. He has also won critical acclaim for his opera productions abroad, in cities like London, San Francisco and Berlin.

Sinaisky’s professorial bearing and slightly amused air give no indication of the fire that erupts on the stage when he sets to work. His Feb. 10 program with the Czech Philharmonic offered an all-Tchaikovsky first half, opening with the Hamlet overture-fantasia, followed by Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra. It was quite possibly the best Tchaikovsky this critic has ever heard, rich and full-blooded, unveiling vivid colors and shimmering textures at every turn.

Hamlet was a study in controlled dynamics, dipping and soaring and raging like a storm, yet filled with nuances and rendered with absolute clarity. In the Variations, Sinaisky provided a background of warm tones and light, swirling woodwinds for soloist Julian Steckel, who showed an impressive technical mastery of his instrument. Steckel’s intense focus lent substance to what can be a flimsy piece, and his fingering and bowing techniques were fascinating to watch, particularly in the encore, a snappy Prokofiev march.

After intermission, Sinaisky served up a masterful interpretation of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Freed of the thunder that the composer’s other late symphonies demand, the conductor lingered over the fractured, brooding passages of the first movement, teased out delicate sonorities in the third, and showed perfect control throughout, even when whipping the sound into a piercing shriek. The balance he struck between solo lines – especially for oboe, piccolo and bassoon – and the full orchestra was phenomenal, producing an almost completely transparent sound. The overall effect was powerful without a hint of bombast, difficult to achieve with Shostakovich.

Popular with the players.
Alexander Vedernikov is 17 years younger than Sinaisky, though with an equally distinguished pedigree at home and abroad – in fact, he was Sinaisky’s predecessor at the Bolshoi, where he was credited with restoring the institution’s artistic excellence. His turn at the Czech Philharmonic podium on Feb. 17 got off to a less promising start, with a subdued rendering of Janáček’s Adagio in D minor. To be fair, the piece is a short, somber work that gives the conductor little room to maneuver, outside of some tonal shadings.

But Vedernikov’s handling of Britten’s Concerto for piano and orchestra Op. 13 was brilliant, a smart, effervescent treatment that was a perfect match for the idiosyncratic style of soloist Karel Košárek. The concerto is wildly inventive, even by modern standards, brimming with boisterous outbursts and clever turns of mood and phrase, audaciously orchestrated and fiendishly complex. Vedernikov wove it all together with aplomb, taking the sound from delicate, gossamer strings to stupendous bursts of cacophony, with the woodwinds floating above it all in fine, airy detail. In Vedernikov’s hands, even the dissonant passages of the fourth movement sounded graceful.

Košárek, meanwhile, cut an odd figure at the keyboard, hunched over and flailing in a manner reminiscent of Glenn Gould (though Košárek does not skimp on the pedals). And he had a page-turner – a rarity at an orchestra concert and seemingly unnecessary at this one, since the pianist rarely glanced at the score. But his overly dramatic, occasionally grandiose style was a good fit for the piece, and he and Vedernikov matched one another in emphasis and tone.

Like Sinaisky, Vedernikov saved the best for last with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances Op. 45, a Stravinsky-like work that ranges from pleasant waltz melodies to slashing strings and brash, off-color horns. Vedernikov reached deep into the heart of the piece to find a pulsing rhythm that seemed to breathe with a life of its own, embellished by sharp percussion, crisp solos and violins that sounded as if they were crying at one point. Authoritative but never stiff, the conductor’s interpretation culminated in a final explosion of sound that could have shattered crystal.

It helped that the orchestra liked Vedernikov – so much so that after a second enthusiastic curtain call, which is enough in most cases, the musicians sat down and made the conductor come back out for a third. That kind of treatment is rare from the Czech Philharmonic. But then, so was the work of Sinaisky and Vedernikov, who guided the orchestra to some of its finest performances of the season.

Photos courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

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