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Tchaikovsky is in two pairs of good hands

March 05, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was Russia's symphonist of exquisite, fastidious agony. Both the fourth and fifth of his six symphonies follow the composer as he squirms under the boot of a crushing-fate motif, suffers intense doubt, finds his soul by drawing out deeply felt melodies and ultimately reaches an ambiguously blazing finish of self-assertion.

What fun these symphonies were over the weekend.

Friday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played the Fourth under the young French conductor Stephane Deneve at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Saturday, the National Philharmonic of Russia, touring with its music director, Vladimir Spivakov, brought the Fifth to UCLA's Royce Hall.

The quintessential differences between French and Russian style were readily apparent. But the performances had something deeper in common. In both cases, here was Tchaikovsky without tears. This was not Peter Ilyich as a manic-depressive Dostoevskyan pawn of merciless fate but rather a personable can-do kind of guy suitable for the New Russia.

What that meant was a slyly ingratiating Fourth that, Muhammad Ali-like, floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. The Fifth proved more a slugfest and even less emotionally complicated.

In the Fourth, Deneve -- who is tall, displays a shock of mussed hair and has a slightly spasmodic style of conducting -- frequently and surprisingly made plangent music waft as if on gossamer wings with fast, delicate playing.

He toyed with his listeners like a cat with a mouse, elastically pushing and pulling the dynamics in the pizzicato passages of the third movement. He delivered fast, hard one-two punches whenever the fate motif reared its head. And he took the finale as a thrilling headlong rush to glory.

Spivakov relied more on the traditional Russian sound of dug-in strings, quivering winds and forward brass for the Fifth. Founded with the support of President Vladimir Putin in 2003, the National Philharmonic advertises itself as an orchestra of Russia's finest virtuosos and has quickly established itself as one of its country's best bands.

The orchestra's website identifies Spivakov not only as the major violinist he is but also as "a popular person." Trim, with short-cropped gray hair -- and displaying grandly eloquent, self-pleased-looking gestures on the podium -- Spivakov conducts in a style that is the antithesis of Deneve's. And the overall sound of the two symphonies was quite different. What they had in common was nonetheless striking.

Like Deneve, Spivakov relied a great deal on virtuosity. The NPR is an excellent orchestra, strong in all sections and sensational in its strings. Spivakov favored thick textures, but he could go just as fast as Deneve, and he demonstrated a love for a good earth-rattling climax. Many string players (the only sections I could see from my seat) sawed away with expressions of joy on their faces.

A fashion among musicologists these days is to read coded erotic insecurity into these symphonies, written at a time when Tchaikovsky's closeted homosexuality was unsettling his life. But, as in the Philharmonic's performance of the Fourth, Spivakov left no room for uncertainty. The melancholy oboe solo in the slow movement of the Fourth and the famous horn solo in the Fifth were both played with rounded grace and were clearly expected to avoid excess pathos, let alone a hint of morbidity.

But Spivakov may also have figured he needed to keep Tchaikovsky clean after the display by Olga Kern in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. The music here is innocent, but the Russian pianist, who has lately acquired a streak of exhibitionism, was not.

Dressed in a revealing strapless red gown cut low in the back, she suggestively writhed through Rachmaninoff, wringing out the last bit of abandon from slow passages. In the last variation, she ecstatically rose to her feet and then finished slumped over the keys, presumably in exhausted bliss.

And yet there was little heat to her act. Her playing is that of a coldly calculating, steely virtuoso -- accurate, percussive, one-dimensional. Her fingers continue to impress, but her body language now expresses a distrust of them.

Piotr Anderszewski was the Philharmonic's soloist Friday. Like Kern, this Polish Hungarian pianist is an attractive young player on a steeply rising career trajectory. And also like Kern, he played the last work for piano and orchestra by one of the 20th century's greatest composer-pianists. But his account of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto was altogether dazzling. Every passage seemed to ring with ear-catching authenticity, be it his percussive brilliance in the first movement, the otherworldly luminosity of tone in the slow movement or his Bachian brilliance at the end.

Anderszewski too is a pianist one watches. But in his case, there is an eloquence that extends from his fingertips to his toes, as if his body were electrified by a single musical impulse.

Deneve began the Philharmonic concert with Prokoviev's Suite from "The Love for Three Oranges." Spivakov started with the "Festive Overture" by Prokofiev's competitor, Shostakovich. The Prokofiev was all sardonic fun. The Shostakovich was all splash. Both performances were spectacular.

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