Matsuev, Gergiev and the Mariinsky Overwhelm

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Ammann, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov: Mariinsky Orchestra St. Petersburg, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano), Tonhalle, Zurich 20.5.2014. (JR)

Ammann:  “Core” for Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Gergiev has apparently made some pro-Russian comments in the wake of the current crisis in Ukraine and is alleged to be a supporter of President Putin’s policies. This had led him to issue a rambling stream-of-consciousness letter to the Friends of the Munich Philharmonic, the third orchestra which will adopt him at its helm). I spotted only one lady outside the concert hall with a bag clearly marked “Ukraine” handing out leaflets, so no violent demonstrations as occurred on Trafalgar Square for the London Symphony Orchestra appeared to be on the cards for Zurich. Nevertheless the audience were kept waiting outside the auditorium whilst a burly security official carried out a swoop of the seating areas, so that the concert started a quarter of an hour late. No announcement or apology was given. The only explosion I heard was part of the Scheherazade – read on.g

 Some six years ago, “Gramophone” magazine ranked the world’s best orchestras. Of course the list is subjective and controversial, even with a panel of eleven distinguished judges, but three Russian orchestras made it into the 20. At number 14 the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (formerly the Kirov Opera Orchestra) heads the list of Russian orchestras, one of Russia’s oldest companies. (The Russian National Orchestra came in at number 15, followed at 16 by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic – the old Leningrad Philharmonic).

 These particular concerts throughout the main cities of Switzerland, sponsored by retailer Migros, always include a Swiss element, whether in the form of a soloist or composer. In this concert it was the turn of established Swiss composer Dieter Ammann, who (as part of a triptych) wrote his piece “Core” for orchestra in 2002 commissioned by the Lucerne Festival.  I must admit I could make neither head nor tail of the programme note: I had to translate from the German but it was something, quite overblown, about forming fully heterogenic musical material into a homogenous indissoluble unit from different musical cells removing their geographic and chronological origins…!  Isn’t that what all composers have done for centuries? Anyhow, from amongst the cacophony I detected strains of Turangalila, Stravinsky and Milhaud – it was all quite fun, tonal, percussive, neither unpleasant nor at any stage boring. It is a modern ten minute piece which should stand the test of time.

 Matsuev has been playing the Tchaikovsky piano concertos round Europe and the USA to great acclaim. The Tchaikovsky received a blistering account. Matsuev is a big bear of a man: his muscularity on the keyboard impresses, but so does his delicacy when called for. The problem is with the piece: Rubinstein was Tchaikovsky’s mentor and adviser on pianistic matters. Rubinstein thought the First Concerto trivial, so that Tchaikovsky had another go. Sadly Rubinstein did not live to hear the première but he would probably have approved as the pianistic elements call for great virtuosity, particularly in the long first movement. The programme note stated that the concerto is “criminally neglected”. The reason for that is probably that the first movement is oddly structured (there are two cadenzas) and, for Tchaikovsky, surprisingly tuneless and unmemorable. It does gives the soloist the chance to show off his skills which were no problem at all for Matsuev – it simply took the audience’s breath away.  The second slow movement gives the soloist a well-earned break and the spotlight falls on the Leader and principal cellist.  It’s not quite Beethoven’s Triple Concerto but close. Then the piano takes over again to delight in the final joyful Allegro con fuoco,Matsuev almost singing along. Before the last note had finished resounding, Matsuev had jumped up to hug Gergiev. I can think of no finer exponent of this work. The audience roared, the bouquets rained down, or rather up, the encores were duly delivered.

More thrills after the interval. The Scheherazade was, as expected from these forces, red-blooded and exciting. The opening was a veritable explosion of sound; this music is in their blood. The virtuosity of the soloists, whether woodwind, brass or strings, was most impressive – particularly when Gergiev opted for fast tempi in the climactic passages of the work.  Special mention has to go to the Leader of the orchestra for his masterful solo contributions, especially the gorgeous harmonics right at the end of the piece. The work also has its weaknesses, but Gergiev’s reading never made the work sound schmaltzy or coarse. The voltage increased as the work progressed, and the last movement, with cymbals clashing, was utterly spine-tingling.

Dudamel conducts the piece at the Lucerne Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic this September and it will be intriguing to compare the versions – watch this space.

John Rhodes

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