Gergiev and Mariinsky Orchestra: Winding Down Tour But Still Up for Prokofiev

AustriaAustriaProkofiev: Valery Gergiev (conductor), Behzod Abduraimov (soloist), Alexei Volodin (soloist), Sergei Babayan (soloist), Mariinsky Orchestra. Großer Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna. 28.10.2014 (SS)

Prokofiev:        Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, op. 111
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, op. 26
Piano Concerto No. 4 in B flat major, op. 53
Piano Concerto No. 5 in G major, op. 55

Vienna caught the tail end of the Mariinsky orchestra’s October tour, just one of three European stops along with Frankfurt and Dortmund (the orchestra toured mainly Russia and Asia). In practice, the tail end meant that the orchestra had performed 25 out of the 27 previous nights in 15 different cities, as per the characteristically restless Gergievian schedule. But tiredness was no issue and routine seemed, in the best and most satisfying sense, to have settled and seasoned this programme. If three and a half hours of Prokofiev felt like a CD box set in concert form, the playing certainly sounded ready to go to disc.

Gergiev’s drawn-out reading of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, which soberly addresses the trauma and suffering of war, clocked in at something over 50 minutes. The tempi of the opening movement in particular were no reflection of the ‘Allegro moderato’ marking, although sluggishness was not a problem (similarly, thickness of sound in the slow movement did not lead to turgidity). The unison playing of the Mariinsky’s first violins sounded like one big impressive instrument, and in many places Gergiev took his aesthetic cues from this, imparting an epic, film music feel to the whole, which actually worked as an effective alternative to the usual norms of symphonic architecture, not seeming merely rudderless. Gergiev’s minimizing of conventional direction and profile also heightened the piece’s shattering Mahlerian ruptures when they came, particularly in the final movement’s arresting conclusion.

The remainder of the evening was devoted to Prokofiev’s final three piano concertos in order of opus number (the previous night, the Mariinsky had done the first two concertos and a couple more symphonies). The third concerto is a substantial work and Gergiev steered things more here, making the music sound more symphonic than the actual symphony which had preceded it. The orchestra was a touch too loud for the soloist but basically supportive. Behzod Abduraimov is a new name to me and impressed with the kind of spotless technique that’s fundamentally touch-focused and thought-driven. Admirers of Daniil Trifonov would find much to like here.

Paul Wittgenstein retooled his entire technique to become a left-handed player, and the concertos he commissioned can be a tough challenge for players with naturally dominant right hands. If not necessarily for that reason, few pianists learn these works and consequently they are not performed so often. Occasional face-twitching from Alexei Volodin suggested that he might have welcomed a couple of free passes for right hand usage, but the playing maintained a flowing line with very decent legato, indeed more often giving rise to the thought that Prokofiev might have pushed Wittgenstein (and himself) a little harder with this fourth concerto. Applying a slightly sharper-edged touch at times than Abduraimov, Volodin cut through the (admittedly smaller) orchestra with ease. In an extravagant throwback to the Classical Symphony, the neo-classicisms of the concluding Vivace movement include a Russified Mannheim Rocket, handled with great ironic charm by Gergiev.

By the time the third pianist came out, this concert had started to feel like the Tchaikovsky Competition final. Sergei Babayan has a look of immense, uninhibited good cheer about him and it seemed right for him to be gifted the most ‘fun’ concerto, which he simply went for, tearing through the somewhat odd Toccata and launching with raised elbows into the second movement’s glissando-fest. This work, which sees plenty of appearances from ‘wrong note’ Prokofiev, showed a lighter side to the orchestra, and a comically doleful cameo for bassoon duet was splendidly unafraid to be silly.

Seb Smallshaw

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