Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra Start their London Prokofiev Cycle in Style

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev: Kristóf Baráti (violin), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 26.9.2016. (AS)

Prokofiev – Symphony No. 1 in D, Classical; Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40; Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19 & Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44

This concert was the first of three on consecutive evenings at the Cadogan Hall in which Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra are playing all seven Prokofiev symphonies, with the two violin concertos and the Sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra thrown in for good measure. And good measure it certainly is: last night’s concert ended at 10.20pm, though the 7.30 start was delayed by ten minutes. This promotion is part of Cadogan Hall’s Zürich International Orchestra Series and also the Mariinsky Theatre’s international celebrations to mark the 125th anniversary of Prokofiev’s birth. The Mariinsky’s UK tour is being sponsored by BP. What a pity, then, that there were so many empty seats in the hall, which only accommodates an audience of 950 persons when full.

Perhaps the slightly forbidding programme was a disincentive. In any other context the juxtaposition of two of Prokofiev’s violent symphonic scores would be considered bad programme planning, but a decision had been made to perform all seven symphonies in sequence over the three evenings.

The concert began with its easiest fare, the First, Classical, Symphony. The quality of charm is not always associated with Gergiev’s conducting, but it was much in evidence here, for the performance was delightfully spirited, elegant and witty. At once the high quality of the orchestra was in evidence, especially the sharp ensemble somehow obtained by Gergiev despite his apparently unclear beat. For connoisseurs of Gergiev’s conducting technique, the baton he used on this occasion was about 15 centimeters long.

Between the First and Second of Prokofiev’s symphonies there was a gap of seven years between 1917 and 1925 and a vast change in the composer’s experience. The latter work was written in France, where Prokofiev was now living after the Russian Revolution. It is still a great rarity in the concert hall, which is quite unjustified, since it has extraordinary variety of mood and high quality invention, and the scoring is brilliant in colour and timbre. Cast in two movements, the first a pretty explosive essay in sonata form and the second a set of highly contrasted variations, the work was wonderfully brought to life by Gergiev and his virtuoso colleagues. Surely nobody excels this conductor in such music when the mood really takes him, as it did here.

On this evidence the Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti, who enjoys a close artistic association with Gergiev, is a very accomplished performer, but not one with an outstanding musical personality, and though he played the First Concerto with style and excellent technique, he was almost inevitably overshadowed by what had come before in the concert – and what was to come.

The Third Symphony is hardly better known than the Second, though it did receive a rare performance at this year’s Proms, by Alexander Vedernikov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His performance had had a certain restraint, with a pleasing emphasis on colour and atmosphere. Gergiev’s approach to the work was more highly-charged, more overtly virtuosic, though he did bring out the eerie, ethereal nature of much of the second movement effectively, and also the third movement’s ghostly, stark whirrings. And at the end of a long evening Gergiev and his players seemed just as energised as ever in a blistering, hard driven account of the last movement. Not only that, but they still found time to play an encore – a beautiful performance of Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake, to put us in a more relaxed mood for our journey home.

Alan Sanders

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