Verdi’s Requiem from Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera: A Messy Clash of Styles

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Requiem: Victoria Yastrebova (soprano), Olga Borodina (mezzo-sorano), Sergey Semishkur (tenor), Ildar Abdrazkov (bass), Mariinsky Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican, London 4.4.2012 (Gdn)

So, it turns out the Mariinsky’s Verdi sounds just as Russian as its Wagner. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily – in these diverse times there’s room for many interpretations – but it does take some getting used to.

Gergiev has brought a relatively small ensemble with him from St Petersburg. For the most part, they punch above their weight, but that still doesn’t explain why he has programmed some of the largest-scale works in the repertoire: Parsifal, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and, this evening, Verdi’s Requiem. Fortunately, they never really sound underpowered, but there are gradations of timbre as well as volume needed here, and a small orchestra trying to sound like a large one can only offer so much tonal variety.

The choir was also surprisingly small, although you’d struggle to get a larger one on the Barbican stage. For my money, the choral singers were the real stars of this performance. They are a well-trained group, with excellent ensemble and internal balance. When planning this sort of tour, Gergiev and his Mariinsky colleagues presumably assume they can take greater chances elsewhere, knowing that they can rely on strong support from the back of the stage.

The orchestra consisted of full-sized woodwind brass sections, a timpanist, a bass drummer, and a surprisingly small group of strings, with six desks of firsts and three of cellos. Again, the ensemble here was excellent, although perhaps not quite up to the world-class standards of most London orchestras. The woodwind section got a bit lost in the melée at times, but they can hardly be blamed for that. The Russian brass sound is perhaps the only aspect of this ensemble to bear any relation to 19th century Italian performance conventions. Like Verdi’s opera orchestras, the Mariinsky’s brass sound is slightly husky and sometimes nasal, but always focussed and with an appealing vocal quality.

Of the four soloists, soprano Victoria Yastrebova gave the most impressive performance. She’s a rising star of the Mariinsky company, and it is easy to imagine her as Tatiana, say, or Violetta. Like everybody else on the stage tonight, she has projection and vocal support that most Western singers can only dream of. But there is also nuance and elegance to her sound, and a sense of intimate human scale that most of her colleagues lack.

Mezzo Olga Borodina is the biggest name among these soloists. The bottom end of her register is particularly impressive, especially for a mezzo, but on the whole her performance lacked subtly, and was rarely easy on the ear. Tenor Sergey Semishkur and bass Ildar Abdrazkov were similarly powerful but un-nuanced. Abdrazkov is one of those Russian basses who always sounds as if he is singing an octave lower than he actually is. He had a few problems keeping the pitch though, and like his mezzo and tenor colleagues, resorted to foghorn mode a little too often for my liking.

One other grumble about the singing – I don’t think I heard a single word the whole evening. In fact, for the first few minutes I wondered if they were singing in Russian. Yastrebova’s first entry put me right. Her diction wasn’t great either, but it was a considerable improvement on that of her colleagues.

As he might with his London orchestra, Gergiev gave an energetic and driven reading of the score. He’s always on the lookout for the next opportunity for dramatic impact, and often seems impatient in the intervening lyrical passages. That said, he is always a practical musician. Verdi writes for a cathedral acoustic, and what the Barbican offers is about as far from that as you can imagine. So, when Verdi leaves long silences after fortissimos for the reverberation to die away, Gergiev doesn’t dwell on them, and by getting on with the following passage he considerably improves the coherency of the result.

It is always clear who is boss. Gergiev lines the soloists up in front of him and makes sure they do exactly as he indicates, only rarely and reluctantly giving them brief moments of interpretive freedom.

For the most part, the ensemble lacked clarity, but it was difficult to tell why. Presumably the players are used to more reverberant acoustics, which might bring out the middle of the orchestra better and particularly the woodwind. But Gergiev has spent enough of his career in this hall to know its foibles. There were one or two moments of illumination though, and these were wonderful. The fugue in the Sanctus really worked, with both singers and instrumentalist giving tight, clipped phrases and weaving in and out of each other with impressive skill. And the last few movements were redeemed by the greater focus on soprano Victoria Yastrebova. Her whispered/sung passages sounded a little forced, but otherwise her singing at the end here was great. And some of the quiet choral writing in the last ten minutes or so allowed the choir to move into Orthodox chant mode. Again, not quite the right style for the piece, but wonderful to hear nonetheless.

For all the impressive musical skills that the Mariinsky brought with them to this evening’s event, the overriding impression was of a messy clash of styles. We certainly learned more about opera in Russia from this conflict than we did about liturgical music in Italy. But hearing this music performed in such a different way helps to resist complacency about the uniformity of orchestral playing in the UK. I wonder what Russian audiences make of British orchestras when they visit? Nothing unprintable I hope.

Gavin Dixon

This performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available online until 11 April 2012 here