By Lawrence Budmen

The National Philharmonic of Russia, Russia’s newest orchestra, made its local debut on April 7 at the Carnival Center’s Knight Concert Hall (courtesy of the Concert Association of Florida). Formed in 2003 by the noted violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov, the ensemble unfurled a big boned sonority and tonal sheen that places it at the upper level of Russian orchestras.

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, led with snappy verve by Spivakov, provided an ideal showcase for the group’s high precision strings and heroic brasses. Spivakov proved a busy, energetic conductor with a sense of Russian musical tradition. 

Olga Kern, Gold Medal winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, was soloist in Rachmaninoff’s ever popular Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor. Kern is a glamorous and charismatic presence on stage. Her music making is less so. Kern’s version of the concerto was tentative, indulgent and labored. Indeed she gave the slowest performance of the score this listener has ever encountered. Much of the time her pianism was inaudible over the orchestra. Playing on a glassy, harshly metallic sounding Yamaha piano, Kern’s tone was muddy and indistinct. Her interpretive eccentricities included simplifying trills and runs. She did propound the sweeping octaves at the concerto’s conclusion forcefully. Spivakov and the ensemble provided stellar support.

An audience liberally sprinkled with many of her Russian countrymen awarded Kern a standing ovation. As encores she offered an effective, strongly enunciated rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor and a sketchy, less than precise traversal of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 in B minor (Pathetique) found the National Philharmonic musicians on home turf. Spivakov offered a balletic, fluid interpretation, capturing the aristocratic grace of the second movement waltz. He offered the most exhilarating account of the martial Allegro molto vivace this writer has ever encountered. The concluding Adagio lamentoso was ultra intense. Spivakov conjured up a dark well of string tone that vividly conveyed Tchaikovsky’s angst. At the movement’s quiet conclusion, a cell phone was heard in the Carnival Center’s x-ray acoustics. Even this annoyance could not detract from this outstanding orchestra’s trenchant performance. Spivakov and his musicians were cheered and awarded prolonged curtain calls by an enthusiastic audience that clearly savored an evening of Russian music played with idiomatic fervor. 

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