Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Nocturnes [Nuages; Fêtes; Sirènes]
The Firebird [1919 Suite]
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Women of New York Choral Artists
New York Philharmonic
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 26 November, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
At a time when major orchestras seem to be in fierce competition to appoint the next rising star as music director, it is good to be reminded that there simply is no shortcut, no substitute for many years of experience, study and contemplation. Now aged 77, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos has immersed himself in a limited repertoire of pieces for decades, but he also still has the fire of a young man, concentrated and distilled by time. His direction can be demonstrative, but he also has an inner power, projection, Ausstrahlung, communicating his intentions unforced.
Barely acknowledging the audience’s applause, he lunged into the Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmilla” with a huge burst of energy, which he maintained even during in the secondary theme for cellos and violas. He managed to find just the right tempo too – not the mad display of virtuosity one often encounters – but giving a spirited and joyful account of the piece.
Leonidas Kavakos was doggedly dressed-down in a plain black shirt worn over his slacks. While he is not the only soloist who has appeared attired as if he were practising at home, one wishes that they were more creative in finding alternative formal wear appropriate to the occasion. Kavakos’s playing had technique to spare – flawless intonation and lightning-fast spiccato in the finale. Since February of this year he is the owner of the “Abergevenny” Stradivarius (1724), which has a rich low register, but lacks power on top. It comes through the orchestra, but the tone just doesn’t soar and feels constricted. Kavakos worked mightily to get sound from the instrument during climaxes, physically bouncing when he released the bow, but one felt more of the intensity than hearing it.
Musically Kavakos was at his best in the ‘Canzonetta’, conjuring up images of vast, desolate spaces. In the outer movements he took Tchaikovsky’s tempo indications to extremes, almost coming to a standstill in the molto meno mosso section of the finale. Frühbeck, using a score for only this work, but barely looking into it, stayed closely with Kavakos, accommodating every nuance, even when it sometimes interrupted the music’s natural flow. The big finish of the first movement drew enthusiastic applause, while the finale sent the audience into a frenzy of clapping and shouting. After several curtain-calls Kavakos obliged with an encore, the ‘Allemanda’ from Ysaÿe’s Fourth Sonata.
Debussy’s Nocturnes and the 1919 Firebird Suite have long been staples of Frühbeck’s repertoire. For both the color of the orchestra changed completely, from lush Russian Romantic sound to surprising transparency and delicacy of playing; and, to paraphrase Mahler, “pianissimo at last!”, a rare achievement with many orchestras these days, and especially in this hall. In the Stravinsky the end of the colorful ‘Rondo’ (with a ravishingly beautiful solo by oboist Liang Wang) tapered to almost nothing. Followed by the first loud thud of ‘Infernal Dance’, one could hear gasps of surprise, and even some laughter, going through the audience.
The Philharmonic was in fine shape, delivering everything Frühbeck asked for – mystery in ‘Nuages’, delightful, bubbling lightness in ‘Fêtes’. The women of the New York Choral Artists were greeted by applause when they walked out just before ‘Sirènes’; although they sang beautifully, one wished that they had been positioned more towards the back, producing more of a mysterious sound from afar. The Firebird was superbly executed as well, with special kudos going to bassoonist Judith LeClair and horn-player Philip Myers; his playing of the introduction to the ‘Finale’, with just a hint of Russian vibrato, took one’s breath away. Frühbeck obviously has completely absorbed this piece, savouring every nuance, every opportunity for expressiveness, and effortlessly bringing the narrative of the ballet to life without a single dancer being needed.