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The National Philharmonic of Russia at Symphony Hall
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  April 23, 2009

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VLADIMIR SPIVAKOV In his element in the dance rhythms. 
If the name "National Philharmonic of Russia" puts you in mind of some provincial Slavic ensemble making the American rounds, you're not alone. The orchestra isn't even six years old, so it's not comparable to, say, the august Leningrad Philharmonic (now, of course, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) that Evgeny Mravinsky rode herd on for so many years. But it's a good orchestra, and worthy of being a Celebrity Series presentation in Symphony Hall, as it was last night. This wasn't NPR's first visit to Boston — that was in March of 2007, under its artistic director, Vladimir Spivakov, to perform Shostakovich's Festive Overture and Rachmaninov C-minor piano concerto, with the visually and often aurally ravishing Olga Kern, and Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, in a full-blooded but not hysterical reading. Last night we got a Russian comfort-food program that found the orchestra mostly in its comfort zone: Anatoly Lyadov's The Enchanted Lake, Rachmaninov's F-sharp-minor concerto, with Siberian pianist Denis Matsuev, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, and a suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet.

There's nothing like seeing the first and second violins divided antiphonally to put a critic (well, this critic) in a good mood before the opening note is sounded: that's the seating these composers wrote for, and you don't hear their music properly when the violins are all clumped, 20th-century-style, on the conductor's left. Spivakov, who was a virtuoso violin soloist before he took up conducting, had the scores in front of him and used a baton, often in big, sweeping gestures. Elegant even in his athleticism, and with that patrician shock of white hair, he reminded me of the late Polish Chopin specialist Stefan Askenase.

The Enchanted Lake made for a muted opening. Lyadov is more famous for the music he didn't write — Diaghilev commissioned him to write a Firebird for the Ballets Russes, but he procrastinated and the job went to Stravinsky — than for anything he did; this 1909 piece derives from an unfinished opera on Russian folktales. The influence of Debussy's La mer is palpable; here, however, there are no waves — everything seems to hang in the air. Spivakov and the orchestra gave a delicate, perfumed, but not pallid reading. At one point an almost shy horn intruded, as if it were a forest creature.

There was nothing delicate about the Rachmaninov. Matsuev is a big bear of a pianist — or perhaps I should say bear wrestler, since he seemed bent on pounding his instrument into submission. (The only pianists who could match him for animation are, well, animations: Tom the cat in "The Cat Concerto" and Bugs Bunny in "Rhapsody Rabbit.") Playing in what critic B.H. Haggin used to call "the traditional mannered style," he favored self-conscious phrasing and lots of distracting head tosses. A brief violin solo in the first movement was barely audible; yet overall Spivakov, who had been a very silent partner with Kern, gave the orchestra and Rachmaninov's distinctive modality full rein. Matsuev's first-movement cadenza fell a little short of melting tenderness, but in the nocturnal regret of a solo that opens the Andante he was suernova stellar.

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