For lovers of cello music, Los Angeles spread out a musical banquet unlike any other last week. Leading in to the finale of the Piatigorsky Festival, a week-long celebration of the life and work of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, were three days of cello concertos, backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and led by guest conductor Neeme Järvi.
The cellists – Ralph Kirshbaum, Mischa Maisky, and Alisa Weilerstein – not only represented some of the finest in contemporary cello playing, but also made for fascinating contrast.
Kirshbaum, who also served as the festival’s artistic director, stepped up to the stage first on Thursday playing Dvořák’s heartbroken “Cello Concerto.” Appearing with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in December, Kirshbaum had exhibited some lapses in technique and intonation. There were no such issues this time. Kirshbaum had the full measure of Dvořák’s concerto under his control, weaving playing of immaculate finesse and refined expression. There was throughout a sense of noble restraint, of allowing the music to speak for itself without having to press it further. If there is a single word that defined Kirshbaum’s playing of this work, it was “aristocratic.”
Saturday night’s soloist, Mischa Maisky – the only cellist ever to have studied with both Piatigorsky and Mstislav Rostropovich – was Kirshbaum’s diametric opposite: brash and unafraid to sacrifice surface beauty for the sake of dramatic expression. His choice of works, Shostakovich’s “Cello Concerto No. 1” and an arrangement for cello and orchestra of Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin,” showcased most handsomely his strengths. These were especially found in the Shostakovich concerto where the composer’s acrobatic writing for his cellist and the taut power of the score was matched by intense playing from Maisky.
The last cellist to take the stage was Alisa Weilerstein who played Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” and Respighi’s “Andante with Variations” on the Sunday afternoon program. Her smooth, rich tone was heard to stunning effect in the works she played. Her luscious sonority, delicately weaving with the orchestra, made a very memorable impression.
At the podium each evening was Neeme Järvi who had the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing at the peak of their form. It’s easy to take Järvi for granted. He is neither young, glamorous nor affected in his podium gestures. But he is something that is an increasing rarity with conductors these days: he is immensely satisfying to hear.
From the very first swirl of sound of Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture” that opened each concert, one was immediately captivated by his fine sense of pacing, sharp rhythm and pellucid orchestral texturing. Järvi’s traversal of the Shostakovich “Symphony No. 5” was powerful, massive. Climaxes were carefully gradated and timed for maximum effect. The onslaught of sound at the symphony’s coda, with its repeated unison, hammered into the listener and the powerful thuds of the timpani were crushing in its weight. Though Järvi also demonstrated an easy grace and sense of delicateness, as witnessed in the misty sprays of harp color in the Respighi or the brooding dialogue of celesta and cello in the Shostakovich concerto’s slow movement.
The orchestra’s soloists were, as ever, outstanding. The vocal quality of Ariana Ghez’s oboe was arresting as was the luminous beauty of David Buck’s flute. Joanne Pearce Martin’s playing of the piano and celesta parts was also brilliant.
Altogether an unforgettable way of leading to the close of this festival of historic importance.