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Spivakov, Kern play full spectrum

Vladimir Spivakov (pictured in New York in 2010).HIROYUKI ITO FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES/FILE 2010/for The New York Times Hiroyuki

CAMBRIDGE - Vladimir Spivakov’s recital at Sanders Theatre on Friday followed an old-school pattern - warhorse, showpiece, contemporary garnish, warhorse - which was apt, given Spivakov’s old-school air. The violinist (also familiar as a conductor, particularly of the Moscow Virtuosi) maintains a comfortably erect bearing, with a technique to match: fluid, correct, efficient. In this concert, though, it was the glimpses behind the refined curtain that were the more memorable.

The recital opened in high classical-masterpiece territory - Johannes Brahms’s Sonata in D minor (Op. 108) - and it seemed to mute the performance, technically solid but emotionally flat. Spivakov applied a full bow nearly everywhere, saturating the score with Romantic sound; pianist Olga Kern (a virtuoso in her own right, a Cliburn Competition medalist) chose a restrained athleticism. The interpretation might have been aiming for slow accumulation - there were no pauses between the four movements, and the finale did finally reach something of a virtuosic crest - but the overall impression was one of accomplished propriety.


If the Brahms was respectable (in all senses of the word), Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne’’ was more brilliant - again, in all senses. The restraint was gone, the players instead pouncing on musical opportunity. Spivakov’s bowing turned multifarious, fluttering staccati, swashbuckling upbows, motionless straight tones both comic and mysterious. More personality bubbled to the surface: Kern’s metallic energy, Spivakov alternating between a sardonic sophisticate and a poker-faced clown.

The second half brought more extreme contrasts. Arvo Pärt’s 1978 “Spiegel im Spiegel’’ (composed for Spivakov) conveys meditative calm with softly tolling piano and expressively static violin. The performance’s control was exquisite - Spivakov giving a master class in even bowing - though the music’s subtle signal couldn’t quite cut through the coughing and squirming of an otherwise appreciative audience.

For César Franck’s Sonata in A minor, the pair returned to their Brahmsian ways, Spivakov full-bowed and decorous, Kern keeping her power on a short leash, the better to release it at pinnacles. But the scenes were both more sharply drawn and more heavily perfumed, the performers missing no chance to tip the music into Romantic languor.


The encores reiterated the recital’s high points. Ravel’s “Pièce en forme de Habanera,’’ thoroughly charming, and Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 6, thoroughly showy, harked back to the Stravinsky’s resourcefulness. The Schubert-Franko “Valse sentimentale,’’ on the other hand, partnered the Franck’s full-throated richness with the Pärt’s stillness, the two tendencies in a slow twirl around the dance floor.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.