Gergiev Brings Prokofiev’s Great Ballet Score Vividly to Life

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev: Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 18.4.2016. (AS)

Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64

Corporate sponsorship is now a matter of routine, of course, but particular thanks are due to BP for supporting the Mariinsky Trust’s presentation of this remarkable concert (and also a preceding four day residency by the whole ballet company at the Wales Millenium Centre). It represented yet another important coup for the enterprising Cadogan Hall management.

The presence of a Russian orchestra (with two British players taking the mandolin parts) under a renowned Russian conductor, in a Russian ballet score, would seem to add up to the probability of a satisfying and authoritative performance. The only potential drawback was the moderate size of the Cadogan Hall stage, which inevitably restricts the size of the string sections just a little. In the event this hardly mattered, such was the quality and strength of sound produced by upper and lower strings alike. As a whole the orchestra gave an outstanding demonstration of corporate virtuosity. Particularly noticeable was the unfailingly firm sound of the brass section and the lower brass in particular – no wobbles in the deep here! The orchestra doesn’t produce a warmly comforting quality of sound. Particularly in this comparatively small auditorium there was more sharp-edged brilliance than deep sonority, but such a thing was just right for Prokofiev’s spiky but ever-imaginative and resourceful scoring.

And then there was Gergiev. Students of this conductor’s unusual technique may care to note that on this occasion he used a short baton of a few inches in length – to great effect. In fact, I can’t imagine a more characterful and insightful account of this great score than he gave on this occasion, even though there are some exceptional interpretations of it to be heard on record. Dramatic intensity seemed to grow and grow as the long evening progressed. Now one understood, as one doesn’t always with Gergiev, just why he has built a reputation of such great heights. There wasn’t a page in the score that didn’t make a deep impact under his super-concentrated direction.

And then there is the music. How extraordinarily imaginative it is. Rather as in Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, for instance, the most brilliantly inventive sequences occur in numbers that don’t feature in and would hardly sit comfortably within the concert suites, wonderful though those are. In the full ballet, the sizes of the four acts are disproportionate, which meant that Acts 1 and 2 formed rather a long first ‘half’, followed by a much-needed interval break. It seemed a shame that so many of the audience members left for home at this point, since Acts 3 and 4 contain quite a high proportion of slower, quieter music as the tragedy unfolds. And if Gergiev had brought out the brilliance of the score’s more extrovert passages he now maintained tension throughout the music of the denouement in a way that was scarcely less remarkable.

Alan Sanders

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