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Culture Reviews
Virtuosi Moskvy & Jessye Norman, cond Vladimir Spivakov
Moscow Conservatory Great Hall 
By Neil McGowan
There was no doubt in anyone’s minds – this was an audience who had come to see the greatest living American soprano, Jessye Norman, and anything else on the program was simply padding.

Sadly, no attempt to raise the opening item on the program above padding-level was discernible, and the Bach D-minor Concerto for Violin , Oboe and Strings passed off in an unstylish and lacklustre fashion. There was a good deal too much extraneous movement from soloists Spivakov (violin) and Utkin (oboe) – including walking around the stage whilst playing. Moscow is no mecca for period performance style, but with C19th trills for C18th music, no ornamentation whatsoever on repeated sections and no cadenzas, this performance cast no glory on those responsible for it. It’s deeply depressing to have music performed with apparent contempt for the composer’s intentions. An inaudible harpsichord was stationed behind the orchestra, from where it added an aesthetic if silent contribution.

The Purcell Pavan & Chacony for 3 violins and bass was unfortunately given similar over-milked treatment – played by full orchestra in the full-blown C19th manner. Someone really ought to establish a means of protecting composers from this sort of thing?

Inserted between the above items, however, was a sparkling account of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 1 from soloist Denis Matsuev. Why couldn’t the detached, non-romantic and wry style so aptly applied here have been brought to bear on the Bach and Purcell too? Matsuev’s phenomenal technique leapt playfully around the opening movement, perfectly capturing the ironic comedy with crystal-clear articulation. His legato was no less impressive, and the titanic fistfuls of notes in the closing allegro con brio (performed at the premier by the composer himself) gave him no trouble whatsoever, bringing the work to a close in fine style. Let’s hope this reading gets to the recording studio soon? Matsuev seems to have a bright career ahead of him on this showing. The supporting solo trumpet part went uncredited in the program, which seemed very unfair.

Finally we were joined by Miss Norman, in a voluminous ball-gown, to tumultuous applause – and back to more Purcell and Bach. It took an American to lead the way on singing Purcell stylishly, and in Dido’s farewell (from Dido & Aeneas) we finally heard all the double-dots and lusciously accurate ornamentation from Miss Norman that we’d missed earlier. It really is deeply ironic that it takes a singer best-known for her recordings of the C19th High Romantic repertoire to give basic lessons on baroque style? Sadly it was not within her power to dispel the soupy sound with which she was accompanied, and this same approach continued in Erbarme dich from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Again, the stylistic gulf between soloist and orchestra jarred uncomfortably. Miss Norman’s finely-honed recital technique won-through, and was an object-lesson to Russian singers – you should remain facially and emotionally engaged with the music, even when you are not actually singing.

The slow movement from Webern’s Langsamer Satz was then played – a piece of programming which made not the slightest sense or coherence to me.

But now, at last, came the much-awaited main item – Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, for which Jessye Norman is world-renowned as an interpreter in the concert-hall and on cd. Given the circumstances of the work’s genesis, the chamber-orchestra line-up can probably be justified. Whilst it seems deeply unfair however, anyone who knows Ms Norman’s recording of the work would have found this orchestral sound sadly emasculated. Most particularly the two movements subtitled “study for Tristan and Isolde” sounded painfully raw – Im Treibhaus started unsteadily with some grim scraping. Wagner is not repertoire which once can just pick-up and play successfully, and in the ultimate irony of the evening, the full-blooded romanticism so inappropriately applied to the baroque works deserted the stage when it was most needed in the Wagner. The moments of dramatic climax went for nothing, like a firework whose fuse blows-out. The slighter-than-average forces ought to have at least favoured the moments of more subtle shading - but even here Ms Norman’s masterly phrasing of “und dann sinken, in die Gruft” lay masked behind an over-prominent orchestral texture that remained glutinous, rather than the transparency that’s really needed here? This was really the wrong orchestra for this work, although Jessye Norman produced a performance of superlatively subtlety above this texture that is the result of years of association with the work.

All this went over the heads of an audience who obviously rarely attend concerts, and insisted upon applauding the individual movements of the Wagner - despite both the soloist’s and conductor’s visual signals not to do so. Someone even called-out an unwanted “bravo!” between Im Treibhaus and Schmerzen. Given that they would have applauded Miss Norman if she’d sung Seventy-Six Trombones just as much, it was no great wonder that a somewhat artificially orchestrated standing ovation (apparently stemming from a group seated around the concert promoters?) resulted. Jessye Norman deserved it absolutely, even if neither Spivakov nor Virtuosi Moskvy – who appeared to have sight-read the Wagner – richly did not.

It was unfortunate that the “security” surrounding Miss Norman was so intense that it caused a good-natured rugby scrum at the Security Check, delaying the concert’s scheduled start by over 45 minutes, and severely spoiling the mood of many concert-goers who had been pushed, jostled and squashed in a painfully incompetent crowd-control exercise. The organisers need to give serious thought to what would happen if anyone had fallen over in this seething mob? Or are they going to wait for the first disaster and fatalities before doing something? Given that the Conservatoire suffered a damaging fire only last year (a projector-lamp fused during the Shostakovich, scattering shards of shattered blue filter over listeners in the front rows) there are some serious safety concerns, long overdue for attention – when the tickets cost this much?

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