One of the joys of being a classical music lover in Toronto is the opportunity to hear great Russian artists at the top of their game. It’s all the work of the Impresaria Extraordinaire, Svetlana Dvoretsky of Show One Productions. Just last April, she pulled off a coup by bringing the great but ailing Dmitri Hvorostovsky back to Toronto, joined by the mega Russian diva Anna Netrebko and her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, in a thrilling show billed appropriately as Trio Magnifico. Last month, it was the Eifman Ballet and the scintillating Red Giselle.
Last evening, Dvoretsky hit a musical home run with the return of the Russian violinist-conductor Vladimir Spivakov and his Moscow Virtuosi. Joining them were two major artists in their respective Canadian debuts — Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava and 14-year-old Israeli cello prodigy Danielle Akta. Roy Thomson Hall was well attended, if not quite sold out, with an enormous Russian contingent, all very enthusiastic based on the rhythmic applause that broke out periodically, a signature of Russian audiences. It was a superlative evening of music-making.
Torontonians last heard Spivakov about three years ago, in a duo recital with pianist and Van Cliburn laureate Olga Kern at Koerner Hall. Now he’s back with his 29-member chamber orchestra, the Moscow Virtuosi, which he founded in 1979. Currently on a 7-city North American tour that has already taken them to Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, and New York. After Toronto, they are slated to play Los Angeles and San Francisco. The program is identical on this tour. I’ve heard this Ensemble a couple of times before, and it was always memorable.
The show opened with the Mozart Divertimento No. 1 in D major, in a very brisk and surprisingly Romantic reading — I must say I wasn’t expecting this stylistically idiosyncratic interpretation. However, the piece that followed hit the bull’s eye in no uncertain terms — Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a, a dark and haunting work “dedicated to the memory of fascism and war.” There were moments of extraordinary beauty as well as flashes of searing pain, folk-like dance rhythms one moment, only to be followed by jarring, unsettling harmonies — very Shostakovichian! I won’t soon forget the marvellous solo passages divinely played by the concertmaster and the principal cello.
Then it was the first guest soloist of the evening, the 14-year old Israeli cello phenom Danielle Akta, playing Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op. 47. What a fabulous talent! Possessing the technique of a super-virtuoso is a given these days, but she also has uncommon musicality in everything she does, drawing the most exquisite, warm, caressing, singing tone from her instrument. I loved her unbridled joy of music-making, so clearly written all over her face. Hearing her was an unalloyed pleasure. Her second piece was the Concert Polonaise Op. 14 by Czech composer David Popper, a highly romantic, happy work with the typical polonaise rhythm. It certainly put the audience in a great mood, and Akta received huge ovations.
The second half was designed to showcase soprano Hibla Gerzmava. I believe her home theatre is the Stanislavsky in Moscow, but she also sings a lot in the west, like Covent Garden, Munich and New York. The last time I heard her was as Donna Anna at the Met, where she has also sung Antonia in Hoffmann and Liu in Turandot. Gerzmava possesses a dark-hued spinto, beautiful, smooth and rich, with an impressive upper extension and agility. Her voice has excellent focus, and her stage presence is larger than life. In a striking gown and a very high hairdo topped with a chignon, she was every inch the diva.
She opened with “Casta diva” from Norma, a real test piece! She has the requisite legato and purity of sound to do this very demanding aria justice. The tempo was brisk, and Gerzmava sang it well. The fortissimo top notes have a very noticeable flutter that takes some getting used to. I also noticed the repeated high A’s (followed by the B-flat) weren’t attacked individually as per tradition. To be sure, she’s not the only soprano who does this, but it’s not ideal. Thanks to a friend, I checked this aria on her Melodiya CD, also with Spivakov, and it was sung as it is intended. In the cabaletta, she sang well, with some edginess at the top notwithstanding. It only goes to show how tough this aria is – no wonder the great Lilli Lehmann considered Norma to be as tough as Brunnhilde!
The Bellini was supposed to be followed by the aria from I Masnadieri, but she reversed the order and sang “Io son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur, with lovely and smooth tone, a definite highlight of the evening. Her Amalia’s aria was sung beautifully too, although occasionally challenged by the florid vocal writing. One wished for a bit clearer Italian diction and more attention to the textual meaning. To me, her best work was the Adriana earlier on, as well as Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de l’amour” and the Ernesto di Curtis warhorse, “Ti voglio tanto bene.”
The audience absolutely adored her. Throughout the show, there were people taking photos with their smartphones or even video-taping, driving the ushers to distraction, running around shining their flashlights at the offenders. But frankly they weren’t going to be stopped. (Incidentally, the photos in this review come from Vladimir Kevorkov, the official photographer from Show One.) After the formal program, the audience wouldn’t let her go. They were rewarded with a mellifluous “O mio babbino caro,” followed by an even bigger treat — Richard Strauss’s sublime “Morgen” with the Maestro accompanying the soprano on the violin! Ever the showman, Spivakov pulled out all the stops and gave us a schmaltzy, sentimental star turn of this gorgeous song, with Gerzmava at her resplendent best. Everyone went home happy.