Prom 52: Gergiev’s Disappointingly Inconsistent Cinderella at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 52: Prokofiev, Cinderella, London Symphony Orchestra, Valéry Gergiev (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.8.2012 (CC)

ProkofievCinderella, Op. 87 (complete ballet)

A tempting, rare opportunity to hear Prokofiev’s wonderful score for Cinderella (1940-44). Way back in 2000, when Musicweb still had a star system for its reviews, I spoke positively of Mikhail Jurowski’s recording on CPO, and I still retain an affection for it (David Gutman in his Proms “Further Listening” speaks slightly dismissively of it, stating the Jurowski “fails to make the same sort of impact” as, say, Previn or Ashkenazy, but reacquainting myself with it while preparing for this review has only confirmed my affection for it ). The music of Cinderella has long lived in the shadow of Romeo and Juliet (which is, it must be allowed, Prokofiev at white heat of inspiration). But that does not mean it is in any way second rate as a piece, and one might safely assume that it was Gergiev’s mission to persuade us so. He succeeded, partially at least.

I have written before that part of the excitement of a Gergiev performance is that one never knows what one might get. One evening everything is white-hot intensity, the next he pushes through as if he has a train to catch. This latter trait surfaced particularly in the final act’s “Galop”, which even threatened to derail. If everything did not quite gel there, there was no doubting the overall efficiency of the orchestra (its virtuosity established, really, from No. 2, the quicksilver ‘Veil Dance’, or Pas-de-châle onwards). And the sheer sound of the orchestra in the Introduction, the strings beautiful against a powerfully grounding bass, was a clear reminder of the LSO’s status. At first, moments seemed so perfectly Prokofievian and just right, before a creeping doubt started to appear that it was all a bit relentless, and while some of the descriptive moments, and there are many, were immaculate (the dragging steps of the father in No. 4, for example), there was the doubt that the narrative trajectory was not all it could be. Gergiev and his forces, it appeared, weren’t really telling us a story.

The waltz that ended Act 1 was magnificent in its slinkiness; the succession of dances that opened the second act was fascinating in the orchestra’s characterization of each. The arrival of Midnight (towards the end of Act 2) was visceral indeed. It was good, also, to have off-stage trumpets for the Prince’s second-act arrival (the players were somewhere up high in the Albert Hall). And the arrival of Cinderella was simply gorgeous, especially after the preceding suave Mazurka. If there was a highlight of the performance, it was the dance for the fairy-tale pair (‘Pas de deux of the Prince and Cinderella’), a magnificently tender Adagio where Gergiev achieved a true sense of magic.

Putting the interval at the end of the Second Act meant we went away and came back for only half an hour’s music (from a 7:05pm start, the concert finished 9:20pm). The final Act was, in performance terms, a bit of a mixed bag. Although earlier there had been some stunning solo contributions, most notably from Andrew Marriner’s clarinet, the LSO’s tuba and cor anglais were not on finest form in the work’s final panel. This last Act seemed to exemplify the patchwork nature of Gergiev’s account, stunningly impressive one moment, pushed through the next. Gergiev is a frustrating conductor in that his flashes of brilliance can so often rub up against moments of carelessness and rushing. He failed to convince that this is a major masterpiece, and I truly believe we are the poorer for it.

Colin Clarke