He’s been called the “Russian Paganini” and all it takes is seeing him live once to understand why. Vadim Repin, who made his Koerner Hall debut on March 6, is able to make the insanely difficult look everyday on his violin. Accompanying him was Svetlana Smolina on the piano, who more than held her own while presenting a contrasting style that was every bit as pleasing to watch.
Repin took a bit of time to melt into the music, with his approach to Bartók’s “Rhapsody No. 1” a little tentative in the first part, the “Lassú”. His playing was technically there but lack the full emotional depth needed to really inhabit the piece, but by the second part of the “Rhapsody”, the faster-paced “Friss”, Repin was showing the audience exciting hints of what he was capable of.
Where “Rhapsody No. 1” can be said to be traditionally composed in terms of its structure and evolution, Debussy’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor” is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a piece that, like the composer’s other works, employs a variety of time and key signature changes, as well as complex rhythms that require very finely-tuned subdividing. For musicians, it provides endless headaches in trying to translate the notes into something more; for listeners, the result is swaying music that’s almost ethereal in its bar-to-bar transformation.
It’s also a piece that enabled Repin to show why he’s in a sparsely-occupied category of musicians: it’s not just his technical ability, of being able to move his fingers from lighting-fast from low on the G string to playing octaves on the E, but of being able to dig deep into the subcontext of a piece and identify its ethos. But there were also plenty of passages that demanded Repin to be sharply technical and precise, such as the repetition of tremolos on double stops and making the highest notes sing with beauty.
The next piece was a bit of an aural surprise. Ravel, a composer who’s best known for his “Bolero”, wrote a Hungarian folk dance-like piece — “Tzigane” — that one normally wouldn’t expect to hear from the French-born musician (especially since he didn’t play the violin). There was an authenticity to the music that both Repin and Smolina provided, along with a vivacious energy that made it difficult to resist tapping your foot to.
During the second half — the part of the program with all Russian composers — Repin seem to come alive even more, and there was a palpable connection between him and Smolina that suggested the two have been playing together longer than they have. They fed off each other beautifully, with one nodding for the other to begin and the synchronicity between them simply flawless. Their performance of the two Tchaikovsky pieces, “Meditation” and “Valse-Scherzo”, embodied everything characteristic of the Russian’s compositions: there was a larger-than-life aspect to it with bold brush strokes, and yet a sense that beneath the grandiosity there lay unrevealed secrets. Both Repin and Smolina glided over the passages easily, disguising the inherent difficulty in Tchaikovsky’s notes as a rush of notes up is complicated by accidentals on the way down.
They made Stravinsky’s “Divertimento” look just as easy to play. It’s not Stravinsky as you’d expect with shades of “The Rite of Spring” thrown in liberally, but rather with plenty of overt clues of just how much he respected Tchaikovsky. There’s a flow and charm to this ballet suite that’s not present in many of Stravinsky’s other works and by being played first after the intermission, it’s a pleasant bridge between the two halves.
It’s a little difficult to believe that for Repin, with all his talent and renown, it was his first time at Koerner Hall. Judging by the enthusiastic adoration — which also resulted in an encore piece, Onegin’s aria by Tchaikovsky — it certainly won’t be his last.