November 9, 1998

Russian orchestra stirs souls

Forty years ago, Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev threatened, notoriously, to bury the United States. Fortunately, neither he nor his successors carried out the threat. But in a Kansas City playoff last week between chamber orchestras from the two countries, the Russians certainly came out on top.

On Tuesday, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra proved that you can play lots of notes with great precision and still make no music. On Saturday, the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, 18 young string players from Moscow, dispensed dazzling finesse but also rich musical -- indeed, emotional -- expression.

pristine technique, rhythmic vitality, subtle tapering even of inner voices.
The intensity was heightened several degrees for the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony (Op. 110a, arranged by Rudolf Barshai from the composer's Eighth String Quartet). Even the hushed, sinuous opening windings of the composer's signature motif D-E flat-C-B natural (DSCH in German pitch nomenclature) were gripping. Conductor Misha Rachlevsky proved that there's such a thing as supercharged quiet.

Almost more amazing, though, was the razor-edge control of the second movement's frantic whirls and scrubbings and the gruff bangings of the fourth. Fearsome they were in intensity, but still flawlessly timed and tuned.

After the quiet ending -- a reprise of the DSCH dialogue -- the program asked for no applause. Then came the first number from Bach's "Art of Fugue," an epilogue that, in a sense, sublimated the preceding trauma and tragedy. (Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to "the victims of fascism and war.") Beginning with vibratoless tone and detached notes, this gradually -- and effectively -- took on a warmer expression.
The care and finesse continued to amaze in the Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings. Even the most ardent passages never lost control.

But the middle movements struck these ears as too hurried for (2) a waltz and (3) an elegy, and even the finale sounded a little rushed. We do well to be wary of oversentimentalizing Tchaikovsky, but Rachlevsky overdid the stiff upper lip.

There were no fewer than four encores: a "Melodrama" from Tchaikovsky's incidental music for the Alexander Ostrovsky play "Voyevoda," Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," a nightmarish Astor Piazzola tango and "Summertime," from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." (Gershwin's parents were Russian immigrants, so the connection wasn't so distant.) The whole first-violin section whizzed impeccably through Rimsky's bee-buzzings at a pace that would daunt many a high-priced soloist.