The Moscow Virtuosi form a chamber orchestra of distinction and resource, of spirit and polish.
And of manifold contradictions. The all-male ensemble wears the air of Old World tradition, and its advertising and program book freely bandy words like "legendary" and "internationally applauded permenance."
But the legend only goes back to 1979, and most of the international acclaim is but a year or two old. Monday evening, the Virtuosi stopped at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, on their first United States tour.
The heady puffery may represent the excesses of the orchestra's American publicists, but the Muscovites clearly understand our entrepreneurial and entertainment ways. Moscow Virtuosi T-shirts were on sale in the lobby, and two very deliberately hammy pops encores capped a program devoted to the more sophisticated joys of Mozart.
Musically there were contradictions as well, though never in technical accomplishment. Director/violinist Vladimir Spivakov has reportedly culled Moscow's finest for his orchestra, and though the implications for the status of Soviet women are startling, his musicians are indeed virtuosic.
Spivakov made some gestures towards period authenticity, in melodic and rhythmic inflection, if not actual embellishment. He added a harpsichord continuo player to the Symphony No. 15 in G, K.124, who then played only intermittently, and not at all after intermission in the Sinfonia Concertante, where the practice would be equally appropriate.
Probably Spivakov regarded the harpsichordist more as a practical, rather than stylistic, necessity, on hand almost solely for the brief recitative in the motet "Exsultate, jubilate," K.165.
The vocal soloist was Araxia Davtian, a soprano of dark-hued, well-focused tone and carefully pointed coloratura. She sang the familiar motet neatly and nimbly, though a trifle slow in the first movement, and heavy in vibrato. She reached the heights easily and gracefully, produced an affecting pianissimo, and negotiated uncredited, somewhat aimless cadenzas with a fair degree of stylistic aplomb.
Davtian also sang a noble aria attributed to the instrumental "Maurerische Trauermusik," K. 477. Her incomprehensible German offered no aid in identifying the work.
For the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, Spivakov took the solo violin duties himself, joining violist Grigori Zhislin in a performance of generous tone and often arch interplay. Their approach was a shade too effusive for the quiet grief of the Andante, but sheer motor energy and fiddling elan drove the outer movements.
The 24 players of the orchestra responded to Spivakov's guidance, whether with baton or violin, with obvious enthusiasm. The ensemble has ready balance, rhythmic cohesion, and consistency of articulation, and they play Mozart with a light, precise, but thoroughly substantial touch, and affectionate charm.
A standing ovation elicited three encores: another movement by Mozart; "Vienna, City of My Dreams" with Spivakov playing violin again; and the "Pizzicato Polka." Spivakov played to the crowd, milking applause and laughter with the knowing glee of a veteran pops musician.