These days, new orchestras and ballet companies pop up in Russia like mushrooms. Last Friday, March 16, the Celebrity Series brought to Boston one of the newest (it gave its debut concert in September 2003), the National Philharmonic of Russia, in an all-Russian program of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique. The conductor and soloist, Vladimir Spivakov and Olga Kern, are hardly household names in America, and the weather was appalling, but Symphony Hall filled up all the same, and Russian filled the air.
The orchestra got off to a good start before even playing a note, having seated itself with first and second violins deployed antiphonally rather than grouped together on the conductor’s left; this is the arrangement that Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky wrote for, and the one that many conductors (BSO music director James Levine among them) are returning to. Shostakovich’s Festival Overture was first performed (there’s some question about when it was written) in November 1954, in celebration of the 37th anniversary of the Revolution. It’s a kind of Russian Pops piece, the slow introduction giving way to zippy fare that could accompany the Rockettes or the June Taylor Dancers. Under an unostentatious Spivakov it never sounded the least bit cynical or cheap; the introduction was heavy-footed and hymn-like (you could hear the Orthodox chant influence), and the release of tension when Spivakov changed speeds conjured great Russian conductors of the past century, Evgeny Mravinsky and Igor Markevich. Who knew Shostakovich could be so much fun?
Blonde knockout Olga Kern came on in a pale-willow-green sheath that would have done justice to Anne-Sophie Mutter. She has long delicate fingers and can spin out nightingale traceries from the wrist, but she can also pull sound out from her back and even her thighs; in the opening chords she came off the bench. Her Rachmaninov was by turns dramatic (close to melodramatic but not quite) and poetic, with lots of contrast, the occasional labored or literal passage, and the occasional pregnant pause that would catch Spivakov out. When she had to play with just one hand she would hold the other unselfconsciously to her heart instead of on her lap. She achieved transparency by underpedaling, and there were salient moments like the religioso second chord in the Andante sostenuto. It wasn’t the most cogent Rachmaninov Second you’ve ever heard (that would be Rachmaninov’s own recording with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra), but it was what a live performance should be: personalized and from the heart. Spivakov’s accompaniment was recessive to a fault.
Inevitably, encores; inevitably, Rachmaninov’s C-sharp-minor Prelude, Kern’s head almost touching her hands, this like the concerto big and individual and on the border of being mannered but for me not crossing the line. Then Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, buzzing with many bumblebees.