Russian Threesome With The Vienna Symphony Orchestra

Vienna, Thursday, October 22, 2020—In dutiful adherence to the programmatic formula: Russian Conductor => Russian Composers, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed a Russian triptych consisting of Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. In the theatrical business, that sort of thing is called “type-casting”. In the music world it’s simply a tired cliché that raises the question: Do the programmers in charge have so little confidence in their conductor (to do non-Russian repertoire well) or their audience (to accept an unknown conductor in anything but their most obvious presumed specialty)?

Not that there aren’t conductors better at certain repertoire than others. But in this Tchaikovsky Fourth symphony, no home field advantage was audible for the young Stanislav Kochanovsky in his debut with the orchestra. The performance was rather joyless, uneven, and dotted with brash and loud moments. There was one moment in the first movement: sweetly breathy whispers from the violas and woodwinds—promises of nuance that never materialized. Nor was Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bald Mountain, that unfailing firecracker of concert halls, quite the concert-opening explosion of romantic confetti one could have hoped for. At least the violins of the VSO buzzed and whirred like angry hornets; the brass unloaded its frustration in a musical manner; and the witches were going at it, fitfully, in suitably wild and jarring ways.

The highlight was, maybe predictably, Maxim Vengerov. Although clearly the big-ticket item on the bill, the heyday of his career was some 20-plus years in the past when he recorded one of the modern reference versions of the Shostakovich (and Prokofiev) concertos. It was Shostakovich’s First that he was performing on this occasion, and fortunately he’s still got it–almost–all: the leathery, adamant, beautiful tone in the poignant first movement (a true lament) that he gets from his Ex-Kreutzer Stradivari; the artistic resolution that makes him willing to make said instrument sound like a string sardine tin in the second movement. And if a hint of rust has collected amid the brilliance in the third movement, he more than makes up for it with verve, experience, and industry.