Gil Shaham's blazing performance of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto lit up Avery Fisher Hall in a New York Philharmonic concert on Wednesday evening. His playing of the first movement, which is filled with numerous, treacherous, accelerated passages for the soloist, caused the audience to break out in spontaneous applause. Shaham also captured the melancholy of the second movement and the joyous dance of the final movement perfectly. His habit of walking and playing right next to guest conductor Andrey Boreyko and then back peddling a bit and playing slightly toward concertmaster Glenn Dicterow seemed odd at first but didn’t detract from the overall effect of the music making.
Shaham’s exceptional performance of the Khachaturian piece was the high point in an intriguing program that contained works by Lyadov, Kancheli, and Stravinsky. This nearly all-Russian concert (Kancheli is a native of Georgia) had a nice arc to it, because of the connection between Lyadov and Stravinsky. It was Lyadov’s laziness or reluctance to compose a commissioned work for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that resulted in Stravinsky’s writing “The Firebird,” which was one works featured in the New York Philharmonic concert.
The program opened with Lyadov’s “Kikimora,” a short piece that evokes the world of a malevolent creature from the folklore of Russia. Under the baton of Boreyko, the orchestra gradually revealed this world. I loved the weeping violin sounds at the beginning of the piece, the mysterious sounds from the bass clarinet, and the pauses. The magical, fairy tale part of the music sparkled with colors, especially by the piccolo, and the piece vanished quickly and quietly at the end.
The orchestra performed Kancheli’s “Abii ne viderem,” which he wrote for stings, alto flute, piano/harpsichord, and bass guitar. Although the title has never been explicated by the composer, it roughly translates to “I turned away that I might not see” or “I went away that I might not see.”
Kancheli wrote this piece in 1992, a year after he left Georgia to live in Western Europe (he now lives in Antwerp, Belgium), and the mood of the piece seemed to convey a conflicted sense of emotions. A reoccurring theme involved the strings reacting to a single, very quiet, almost hesitant note from the alto flute. Some reactions involved a flurry of sounds and at other they were clusters of tones. Sometimes the strings of the piano were plucked to that it would sound like harpsichord. The bass guitar added a little bit to the overall color of the sound, but that was all. The overall impression was static, the piece ended where it began (well, so does the Ring Cycle).
For Stravinky’s “The Firebird,” Boreyko chose to perform the 1919 suite version. This version employs a relatively small string section – small than the one used for the original ballet score and for the 1911 suite. Under Boreyko, the orchestra played with a light touch, telling the story of how the prince uses a magic tail feather from the Firebird to smash the egg of the evil King Kashchei. The orchestra effectively surprised everyone when the big, loud bang occurred, but the brass overpowered the strings in some passages. However, since this version of the suite uses a smaller string section, it is tougher to get a balanced sound.