Concluding their tour of southern Florida, the Mariinsky Orchestra came to Miami’s Arsht Center Friday night with a program of Russian showpieces. The St. Petersburg-based ensemble is not only one of Russia’s best but a truly world class orchestra that can hold its own with top American and European bands. Longtime music director Valery Gergiev is hard to surpass in Russian repertoire, and the concert also featured an extraordinary performance of a too-rarely-played piano concerto.
A highly flexible group that regularly plays opera, ballet and chamber music performances as well as symphonic concerts, the Mariinsky does not have a weak link from first chairs to section players. Their corporate sound consistently displays depth and cohesion of tone and instrumental blend. Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1 (“Naughty Limericks”) was a high-spirited opener, showcasing the orchestra’s brilliance and virtuosity.
The work’s title is misleading. Not an elaborate orchestral showpiece in the mode of the concertos by Bartok and Lutoslawski, Shchedrin’s score is really a brief divertimento that displays great humor and flair for extremes of volume and timbral range. The score’s wit saves it from the vulgarity that characterizes the work of many second-tier Russian composers, and it proved a romp for the orchestra’s instrumental choirs” with its satirical trumpet and trombone solos.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is a more intricate and technically demanding work than the oft-played first concerto, yet it is vintage and mature Tchaikovsky, filled with melodic riches and pyrotechnical challenges. For many years, the concerto was played and recorded in a shortened, modified version by pianist-composer Alexander Siloti. Happily Gergiev and soloist Denis Matsuev offered Tchaikovsky’s complete original score.
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Matsuev’s big-boned, take-no-prisoners playing swept through the rapid-fire passages and hand crossings of the opening Allegro brilliante with devilish verve. The movement has two cadenzas, the second Lisztian in its demonic speed and fury. Playing with spot-on precision and blazing technique, Matsuev’s hands were a blur across the keyboard. Gergiev was sensitive to the imperial grandeur of Tchaikovsky’s balletic melodies, finely detailing the elegant wind and string writing.
The Andante non troppo second movement is almost a chamber trio for violin, cello and piano, it’s principal theme one of Tchaikovsky’s most hauntingly beautiful creations. Matsuev’s lovely tone and wide dynamic range was matched by the old school, sweet, aristocratic violin of concertmaster Stanislav Izmaylov. The light, restrained playing of cellist Oleg Sendetsky melded with violin and piano like the finely etched teamwork of a top chamber ensemble. It would be hard to imagine any pianist playing the Allegro con fuoco faster than Matsuev’s breakneck pace but he also captured the music’s lightness and syncopation.
Repeated curtain calls and bravos brought Matsuev back for a characteristic jazz encore of Oscar Peterson riffs on Duke Ellington standards with the pianist’s added embellishments.
From the clarion opening trumpet “Promenade” to the sonorous mass brass, clanging bells and gong of the “Great Gate at Kiev,” Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition exhibited the orchestra at full power. The harp line was unusually clear and the tuba solo seemed to engulf the entire hall in sheer velocity. Gergiev’s pacing was both sensitive and freshly conceived. The slow tempo for “The Old Castle” offered a distinctive saxophone solo, intense and brooding, and the percussions’ initial hard thwack in “Baba-Yagá” must have been heard on Biscayne Boulevard. Ravel’s sumptuous orchestration has rarely been played with such instrumental dynamism and luster. The silky string tone and lyrical flow of the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin was the evening’s memorable bonus.
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The Arsht Center’s Classical Series continues at 8 p.m. Saturday with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cristian Macelaru playing Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable) and Sibelius’ Kuolema, Valse Triste and Violin Concerto with soloist Ray Chen. arshtcenter.org 305-949-6722