October 20, 2001

Superb Russian String Ensemble

By Heuwell Tircuit

We've reached a silly cliche on the local concert scene: the knee-jerk standing ovation. A small claque can jump to their feet, quickly followed by the majority - partly, I suspect, so they can see what's going on. Virtually everything gets a standing ovation, merited or not. However, for Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, the standing enthusiasm Friday evening at Old First Church was well deserved. Under founding director Micha Rachlevsky, the Russians covered themselves and the music at hand with uncanny musicality, precision and verve. The 16 string players offered the sort of superb playing one expects only from a top string quartet on a good night.

Founded in 1991, Chamber Orchestra Kremlin has drawn international praise everywhere from Glasgow to Tokyo, both for their concerts and for numerous recordings on the spiffy Swiss label, Claves. Still, hearing live is believing. Clearly this is one of the super ensembles on the current international scene. This concert amounts to a major coup for Old First concerts.

Rachlevsky opened with his own transcription of Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet No. 2, "Lamento," followed by Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony No. 1 (Rudolf Barshai's transcription of the Eighth Quartet, Rachlevsky oddly using the first fugue of Bach's "Art of Fugue" as epilogue.) Following intermission, Rachlevsky added a transcription of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70, originally a string sextet. (No arranger was listed for the Bach or the Tchaikovsky.)

Warm, Rich Ensemble

The sheer amount and velvety warmth of sound was thrilling. You might well think you were hearing the entire string section of the Boston Symphony. A key to such sonority is, of course, uniformly precise intonation, which provides additional reinforcement up and down the column of overtones. It's one of those acoustical tricks accounting for the kind of oomph of sound one hears from the best symphonic ensembles. In the case of the Kremlin players, the feeling of warmth was nearly palpable.

Then too, uniformity of performance was much in evidence. It was not even a matter as basic as bowing, but rather things like vibrato and subtlety of attack. They all used the same basic style of playing in ways no group of individuals from diverse backgrounds could hope to attain. One also suspects that Rachlevsky has the luxury of extensive rehearsal time. The amount of detail in the performances is too exceptional to be otherwise.

Rachlevsky's feel for tempo was uniformly admirable and appropriate. Nothing seemed rushed or drawn out, as he cultivated superb balances between sections. The viola section might rise to take the lead here, a solo cellist there, with nary a hint of artificiality. His baton technique is a tad gawky, but that hardly matters unless one goes to see a concert rather than hear it.

An Inevitable Comparison

The Schnittke and Shostakovich works amount to tone poems. As such, their effect is heavily dependent on audience awareness of their programing intent, for the structure of neither is strong. Schnittke's four-section single movement was inspired by the premature death of film director Larisa Shepitko (in a car accident). Schnittke, who had worked with Shepitko, wrote three inspired, texturally original sections, only to sink into a rather sappy sentimentality in the manner of a 30's movie coda. ("And now, as the sun rises on tomorrow....") Such a radical shift ruins perspective for the whole. It is a little like ending a performance of "King Lear" with Lear singing "Don't Cry for me, Argentina."

Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet is heavily autobiographical, including many quotes from his previous works, especially the Second Piano Trio and Tenth Symphony. Then too, there is the heavy-handed insertions of his monogram DSCH (D, E-flat, C and B-flat, in the German nomenclature). The program notes inform us that the repeated use of three loud chords in the fourth of the five movements represents the KGB knocking at the door, etc. Oh dear - a little of that goes a long way.

I found myself recalling an old French review of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. After the Paris premiere, the critic commented, "We quite understand Herr Strauss' fascination with his own career. But that does not oblige the rest of us." I'm weary of the self-pity so constant in the music of both Shostakovich and Mahler and regularly advertised in the commentary. Enough is enough. Apparently convinced that the Shostakovich represents some sort of sacred document, the audience was request to avoid applause at its conclusion, so Rachlevsky could segue directly into Bach's Contrapunctus I. It was like the mystico-religious nonsense imposed on performances of Wagner's "Parsifal".

Expert Playing Throughout

Tchaikovsky's sextet is not at all unpleasant, ending with one of his major reiterative applause-machine codas, much in the manner of the Fourth Symphony and "1812" Overture. Unlike his Capriccio Italien, an Italian connection is not at all apparent . What comes through is in fact a sort of four-movement divertimento on Russian folk music, replete with a Cossack dance finale. It's an effective, but decidedly lesser piece.

Yet everything made a stunning effect, largely due to the quality of the playing. These musicians are so terrific that they can make even secondary music sound impressive. My one major criticism of the programming lay in Rachlevsky's failure to include any music conceived for string orchestra. There's no shortage. Tchaikovsky's wonderful Serenade for strings, for example - a work even Brahms admired - would have been far more satisfying than the composer's Italian piroshki.

Encores included a brief lyric piece by Kallinikov, the Menuetto from Schnittke's Suite in Olden Style and "The Flight of the Bumble-Bee" from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Mlada.

(Heuwell Tircuit, composer, performer and writer, was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the SF Chronicle, previously for the Chicago American and Asahi Evening News.)