Rachlin and Academy deliver fiery take on Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons”

Thu Apr 08, 2010 at 11:05 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Julian Rachlin

The London-based chamber orchestra known as the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields has one of the more sedate names in classical music. Founded in 1958 by Sir Neville Marriner, it has achieved comfortable middle age. 
 And its more than 500 recordings are so ubiquitous on classical radio that it’s tempting to regard the ensemble primarily as a provider of aural wallpaper.

Tempting but a major mistake, judging from the fiery concert Wednesday night at Symphony Center by the orchestra’s string contingent. Like New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the 21-member group performs without a conductor. It tends to have rotating guest soloists who sometimes do the essential job of setting an initial tempo.

On Wednesday violinist Julian Rachlin filled that role and much more. Listed in the program book as the Academy’s director, solo violin and viola, Rachlin was born in Lithuania and raised in Austria. A former child prodigy now in his mid-30s, he was animated onstage, lunging toward his colleagues, urging them on with his own body language. But his warm, penetrating tone of his violin blended eloquently with their sound as well. He managed the delicate balance of setting a pace and a mood for the orchestra without turning the concert into an evening of Julian Rachlin and Friends.

The string repertoire was mostly familiar fare: Grieg’s Holberg Suite and arrangements for string orchestra of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. The closing work, Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, was new for most listeners and clearly the evening’s highlight.

Not even a king of the tango like Piazzolla can write a four-movement work about the seasons and assume that their audience won’t be thinking about Vivaldi’s perpetually popular, The Four Seasons. In the opening Spring movement (which the Academy repeated for its encore), Piazzolla lets the violin soloist saw away at a few, buzzing bars lifted from his Baroque predecessor.

But the lively, sensual spirit of Buenos Aires suffused the piece, and Rachlin and his colleagues reveled in its seductively unexpected twists and turns. Spicy dissonances punctuated the Spring movement, the instruments colliding and pulling away from one another like high-spirited crowds in an open-air café. There were icy rasps and brittle outbursts in the Winter movement, but also harmonies full of smoky languor.

Soloist and ensemble didn’t save themselves for the Piazzolla, however. Responding to Rachlin’s combination of effortless virtuosity and thoughtful expressiveness, the orchestra found a potent mix of urgency and introspection in the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas.

With the Holberg Suite, the evening got off to a tepid start. Perhaps it was a matter of getting used to the acoustics of an unfamiliar hall, but the string sound was too astringent and wan for Grieg’s lush melodies.

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