Take the winner of the 1976 Munich International Viola Competition, give him the luxury in 1992 to select the most accomplished and gifted graduates of the Moscow Conservatory, and you have Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists. These 18 superb string players rolled into Durham near the end of their 2007 U.S.A. tour showing signs of the weariness that this type of showbiz inflicts on you, but ultimately gathered their energy and flare to present quite a dynamic evening.
Their arrival was preceded by glowing reviews in big-city markets based on similar repertoire to what they were playing here in Durham. I approached this program with skepticism, but muted enthusiasm since the major works both starting and ending the evening were string orchestra “arrangements” of well-known string quartets, with the arranger of both being Gustav Mahler. So, what could be wrong with that? The more the merrier! Transcriptions, arrangements, adaptations, etc. are wonderful compositional vehicles that allow you to hear great works in different configurations, expanded, or reduced, and also gives composers a tangible result to studying scores. However, I’ve never quite understood the attraction of merely throwing more players on each of the four voices of a string quartet and selling that as musically satisfying. After all, would you want to hear a Brahms violin sonata simultaneously played with 4 violinists and 4 pianists? But despite my admitted bias, I approached the concert with an open mind and ears – but unfortunately my preconceptions proved true.
This first work was the arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in f minor, subtitled “Quartett Serioso.” Ironically, the 18 string players sounded more muted and distant than a quartet. From what I could hear and see, this was merely four string quartets playing the same work along with some punctuated cadences by the lone bass player. I’ve developed a good sense of the audience’s absorption level and this one was slipping off like Teflon. It was quite disorienting and disappointing with the only question that I could ask being “Why?” I was desperately hoping that the concert would not continue in this vein, if for no other reason than I wouldn’t have to answer irate “letters to the editor” saying what a jerk I am for daring to criticize this celebrated group.
Bashmet then put down the baton and picked up his viola (a much better arrangement) to perform Monologue for Viola and String Orchestra, written for Mr. Bashmet in 1989 by Alfred Schnittke. This gave the audience our first exposure to the tremendous artistry of Bashmet. This is a dense, dark work that seemed an especially perfect match for the mysteriousness of Bashmet’s demeanor.
Poor 20th century British composers. They spent much of their time looking back to the high Renaissance which was generally considered the last time that England produced great composers. Benjamin Britten had a special fondness for John Dowland, and he wrote his intriguing Lachrymae for viola and string orchestra as homage to the great lutenist. This unusual variations form is almost identical to Nocturnal, a work that Britten wrote for solo guitar. Both pieces put the theme, a Dowland song, at the very end rather than stating it at the start. Bashmet effortlessly tossed aside virtuosic passages while still being able to sound like a consort of viols as the simple, plaintive theme died out.
Now came the string orchestra arrangement of one of the miracles of man – Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. This was everything that the opening Beethoven was not. First off, there were actually differing orchestrations as if the original was not a string work. The players came alive; the audience hung on every phrase and marveled at the impassioned playing and Schubert’s tortured genius. It was not just the jumbo version of the string quartet but an exciting reevaluation. At best, Bashmet is a quirky conductor with erratic beat patterns, yet in this performance he elicited remarkable precision and unanimity of emotion. If this concert were charted on a graph, it would be a sharply ascending line that continued to climb even higher after the final chords of the Schubert.
The first encore was a hair-raising ride through the Presto of Mozart’s Divertimento in D major. For the first time, smiles appeared on most of the players’ faces as they performed with the innocence of children combined with astoundingly brilliant technique. The evening closed with Mr. Bashmet uttering his first, and only, words: “Alfred Schnittke, polka.” The only way to describe it is a quick trip of heavily, and heavenly Russian soul music.