Spivakov and Kern team up for a virtuosic, audience-pleasing program

February 21, 2012
By Gerald Fisher

Vladimir Spivakov

Two celebrated Russian musicians making their first joint tour outside of Europe brought a high degree of virtuosity and rapport to Symphony Center Sunday night. Violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov has been a musical force throughout a long international career and pianist Olga Kern is among the finest pianists of the current generation; together they tackled an ambitious program with effortless grace and a patrician style that was Russian to the core.

The artists signaled the seriousness of their intentions by choosing to open with the dramatic and richly thematic Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3. As the title indicates, the piano has a leading or at least equal role in the work, and Olga Kern filled the part with distinction, framing and supporting the violin with a full, rounded and rhythmically alert precision. The final drawn-out conclusion of the almost symphonic first movement elicited a burst of applause from the surprisingly diverse audience.

Undeterred, the duo launched right into the darkly lyrical Adagio which gave way to the brief Scherzo with its delicate arpeggios finely articulated by both artists. The Finale was virtuosic without seeming overdriven dispatched with efficiency and drama. Even if the last ounce of idiomatic German Romantic flavor was lacking in the violinist’s style, this was a most satisfying and impressive performance.

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne is the composer’s reworking of themes from his ballet Pulcinella, which itself used melodies of the 18th Century composer Pergolesi to create a modernist take on the baroque style. Pulcinella is one of Stravinsky’s finest Neo-Classical scores and the Suite is good-humored and technically demanding.  Both qualities were in evidence in this performance and the third movement Tarantella was dispatched with especially notable élan and agility.

Olga Kern

For the second half of the program Kern changed from a black gown to a striking red one adding a visual punch to the proceedings.

Estonian Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel is one of the composer’s best-known pieces. It has been transcribed for numerous solo instruments but the original version, written in 1978 and dedicated to Spivakov, is the violin and piano version heard Sunday.  This is an example of Part’s tintinnabulatory style with the violin’s simple phrases arching smoothly over the piano’s repeated triads in a limpid and intimate meditation which stretches on for ten transcendent minutes here given a glowing, exemplary performance.

The program concluded with a straightforward account of Franck’s Violin Sonata, which showed off Olga Kern’s dynamic and responsive technique, particularly in the churning accompaniment at the beginning of the second movement and in the furious drama that marks the extremes of the third movement. Spivakov’s virtuosity was on display here, but Kern kept pace with him and the movement ended brilliantly. The Finale is broad and sunny and both artists seemed to enjoy the collaboration, the piano setting the pace in a satisfyingly triumphant conclusion.

The three encores were calculated to please and send the audience home with a smile: The performance of Ravel’s Habenera was not very French but detailed and charming; Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 1, wonderfully schmaltzy, and best of all a Polka by Alfred Schnittke taken from his audience-friendly Gogol Suite and played with a maximum of Russian exuberance and humor.

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