February 14, 2008

Poetry and Song to Plumb the Russian Soul’s Depths

The day the persecuted Russian poet Joseph Brodsky went into exile, a recording of Mozart’s Divertimento in D (K. 136) was on his record player, according to the program book for the concert by the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin at Weill Recital Hall on Tuesday evening.

The orchestra’s bristling performance of the work (written when Mozart was a teenager) certainly had a frisson of danger about it, with the Presto played so fast, it evoked someone fleeing. Misha Rachlevsky, the ensemble’s music director (who founded it in 1991), elicited warm, full-blooded and virtuosic playing with colorfully shaped, gleaming phrases.

“There ...” (2006), a bilingual song cycle by Leonard Eskin based on Brodsky’s Russian poems and Brodsky’s own English translations, received its American premiere here. The work, a sort of musical theater piece with lyrical, thick orchestral textures, was at times redolent of Shostakovich, Piazzolla and Weill. Julia Kogan, a bright-voiced Ukrainian-born soprano, sang Brodsky’s texts, including “The Fifth Anniversary” and “Stone Villages,” in both Russian and English.

Before the fanciful “New Jules Verne,” the final poem, she darted offstage and returned with props, including a letter. There was also amusing participation from orchestra members wielding placards. At one point a violist stood up and said, “Ten years later,” before Ms. Kogan, a lively actress, resumed singing, bottle of booze in hand.

After intermission the violinist Valeriy Sokolov and the pianist Yuri Polubelov played Boris Ivanovich Tishchenko’s Concerto for Violin and Piano (2006), which received its American premiere here. Mr. Tishchenko’s synopsis of the programmatic four-movement work called it a love duet between the two instruments.

The opening Fantasia began with an insistent, questioning but almost monosyllabic dialogue that soon grew testy. The cacophony of the Rondo seemed to herald an imminent divorce, but a lush and romantic duo brought reconciliation.

Mr. Sokolov played with a singing, glowing tone, often contrasted against the spikier piano part, played with feisty conviction by Mr. Polubelov. There were striking gestures and plenty of drama, but the piece felt rather long-winded. I sometimes felt like an impatient therapist hoping the bickering lovers would just hurry up and reconcile.

The lyrical mood of the concerto’s concluding moments set the scene for Tchaikovsky’s “Elegy in Memory of Ivan Samarin” and Mr. Rachlevsky’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher.” Both were performed with sweet-toned, lilting delicacy, with the violins particularly impressive.

The mostly Russian-speaking audience honored the orchestra with a slow clap, and the players showed off their polished technique and tonal beauty again in the encore: the sprightly Moderato from Rossini’s String Sonata No.3.