Gergiev and Mariinsky Orchestra in Fine Form for Second Prokofiev Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev Kristof Barati (violin), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 27.9.2016. (GD)

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 4 in C Op 47 (original version) (1935); Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1935); Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op. 100 (1944)

This was the second concert in a series of three, over three consecutivie days, in which Gergiev is conducting his own Mariinsky Orchestra in the seven complete symphonies of Prokofiev, also the two Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra.

Gergiev opened the concert with the not much heard Symphony No. 4 in its original version from 1935. The symphony was developed from the ballet ‘The Prodigal Son’ (from the Biblical parable). The ballet was first performed in Paris, in 1929 to much critical acclaim; it was to be the composer’s last ballet score for Diaghilev, but while composing the ballet Prokofiev increasingly thought that the music would be better suited to a symphonic form rather than the episodic form of a ballet. This resulted in the Symphony No. 4 Op.47. It was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930. Back in the Soviet Union Prokofiev revised the symphony giving it a new Opus Number (112), greatly expanding the length and ‘amplifying’ the level of orchestration, in accordance with Soviet demands for ‘broad brush-strokes’ projecting a generally ‘optimistic’ tone. Prokofiev further made it more symphonic, distancing it from the original ballet influence.

Tonight Gergiev was in fine form. I have not always warmed to his conducting – I remember a dreadfully mannered Tchaikovsky 5 with the London Symphony Orchestra. But tonight there were no mannerisms or indulgent conductorial interventions. Gergiev conducted the music as it is written – simply, or not so simply, ‘playing what is there’ in a most economical way, underscored by similarly economical gestures (with the notorious tooth-pick miniaturised baton) for the music and players. The Mariinsky orchestra was superb, with those exquisite Russian inflections, especially in the brass/horn sections – so disliked by most Brit critics. In the first movement Gergiev matched the machine-like ostinato passages with the more lyrical /melodic sections to perfection. The ‘Andante tranquillo’ was beautifully contoured, allowing the plethora of melodic themes their full affect, with some beautiful flute contributions. The ‘Moderato, quasi allegretto’ was inflected by the ballet dance rhythms to which Prokofiev added some subtle delicacies of orchestration. All superbly realised. Ostinato rhythms and sharp edges return to the finale which Gergiev drove to a resplendent peroration of symphonic and ballet themes.

I have not heard Kristof Barati before, but judging by tonight’s performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto he is a most promising violinist. He studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, which automatically confers on him the highest credentials; just think of great musicians who have studied there! There was plenty of virtuosic excellence in the ‘Allegro ben marcato’ finale with its slightly ‘Spanish’ flavour, its waltz like inflections and almost baroque ascending/descending solo figurations. But in the tonally ambiguous, and slightly haunted quality of the second movement ‘Andante assai’ which some have seen as a parody of the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto), he demonstrated quite remarkable abilities of contrast between the lyrical and the stark pizzicato rhythms, suggesting a kind of primitive piano. Toward the end of this movement, Barati gave us some beautifully sustained sotto voce playing. His opening solo recitative was well structured with just the right degree of expression. Gergiev accompanied with tact and insight. As an encore Barati played an idiomatic rendition of the first movement of Ysayë’s Second Sonata from his Op. 27 set, with its Bachian inflections.

Gergiev conducted a performance of the Fifth Symphony which, in a sense, brought us ‘back to basics’. So often Western performances of this fascinating symphony have tended to view it in terms of an orchestral show-piece with increasingly lush tones, textures and virtuoso precision. Also the symphony has tended to become more expansive in length, Celibidache being the most extreme and grotesque example here. Tonight Gergiev gave us something completely different, more in line, I would imagine, with the first performance in Moscow in January 1945 with the composer conducting. And with the din of war challenging the music. Gergiev’s performance emphasised the symphonic structure of the work. Here the return of the principal theme of first movement in the finale in renewed splendour had the effect of making Prokofiev’s whole design more symphonically connected. The ‘slow’ movement in F major had an intensity (at a more forward moving pace) rarely heard. And in the second movement, as a sarcastic scherzo, Gergiev, with cutting rhythms, reminded us of the composer’s balletic influences (as with Tchaikovsky) with the leftovers from Romeo and Juliet from ten years earlier. The build-up of tritonic dissonances towards the end of the first movement (especially in the brass) had a raw energy, antithetical to the highly refined lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound produced by the likes of Karajan.

Prokofiev spoke of the symphony in terms of a ‘symphony of the greatness of the human spirit’, and it is worth pointing out that at the time of the work’s premiere in 1945 the Russian army had crossed the Vistula and was moving towards Berlin to compound the victory over Hitler’s Fascist/genocidal regime, the climax of the ‘Great Patriotic War’. This is not much mentioned by British commentators and critics. As a patriot Prokofiev must have had this in mind at the time, but as an ironist he was reluctant to give a more specific message of hope. And the symphony itself is full ironical twists and turns. In the coda the symphony ends with a thrilling bang, but what does this denote? escape, joy, victory, finality, closure, terror, frenzy?

In tonight’s rendition Gergiev simply gave us what is there in the score, with no added ornamentation or cosmetic allusion. The questions of context, war, victory, were left open to the audience/listeners. Initially, after the performance, all I was thinking of was the music, its marvellous fusion of the most rigorously thought-out symphonic structure crossed-over with elements of Russian ballet. Perhaps this cognitive erasure of the conductor in favour of the work/composition is ostensibly the highest praise one can apply to a performing musician.

As a fitting encore Gergiev conducted an elegant and rhythmically adroit rendition of ‘Masks’ from Romeo and Juliet.

Geoff Diggines   

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