Imperial and Revolutionary – Worlds in Collision and Transition at the Proms


United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC Proms 68 – Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Denis Matsuev (piano), Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus / Valery Gergiev (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 3.9.2017 (RBa)

Prom 68 BBC_CR_Chris Christodoulou_4
Denis Matsuev (piano) & Mariinsky Orchestra (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prokofiev – Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op.74

Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major

Shostakovich – Symphony No.5 in D minor

Sunday’s Prom took as its theme the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This was “marked” rather than “celebrated”. We are, after all, more comfortable with upheavals, within the musical universe (Rite of Spring, Second Viennese School) rather than political insurrection.

Any queasiness there might have been about the Prokofiev work, and settings of words by Lenin and Stalin, was offset by the inclusion of the Tchaikovsky concerto from Russia’s Imperial era. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony — contemporaneous with the Prokofiev cantata — followed. For all of the Symphony’s “creative response to justified criticism”, it is said to have an obliquely Stalin-defiant subtext. At least the Shostakovich had a premiere in the 1930s, while the Prokofiev had to wait until the 1960s. Even then the cantata appeared in a bowdlerised version, tempered to suit the politics of the time.

By comparison with conventional practice, this was an unusual concert. It started with the 40-plus-minute Prokofiev cantata in place of an overture. Then came the uncompleted concerto —a shorter piece. The concert finished after the interval by reverting to standard programming template with the popular Shostakovich Symphony.

The Mariinsky forces (choir and orchestra), very much Gergiev’s orchestra, were present, courtesy of BP. Capitalism has its place. The choir was not huge, but at 60 — split equally between males and females — it made a sonorous yet miraculously word-precise impact. The words were in Russian and these were given in transliteration and translation in the programme book. They spared us nothing when it came to revolutionary rhetoric. There were no vocal soloists, excepting a man from the body of the choir who in one very brief episode declaimed Lenin’s words through a megaphone.

Other “specials” amid the orchestra included three bayans (accordions), a siren, an alarm bell and six percussionists called on to tramp-march noisily at one point. There was no sign of the Maxim machine gun or the cannon, either in physical presence or in recorded sound.

As for the orchestra, it was crammed into the stage with little elbow room. That is a pity, since there were two-rows-worth of empty space from the foremost rank of seats back to the outer lip of the staging and the Prommers railing. The orchestra was by no means small in number, with the brass arranged left to right: trumpets (6), trombones (6), tuba (2) and horns (8). The violins were divided left (firsts) and right (seconds) of the conductor.

The stage was set for theatricality to over-run musical values, but no more so than in Havergal Brian’s Gothic or Mahler Eighth. In fact, Gergiev was having no truck with spectacle. He was triumphant in presenting this as music. The score positively seethes with telling ideas that stand aloof from the sort of gaudy poster-art we might have expected. The image of the Teutonic Knights from Alexander Nevsky kept surfacing in the first few scenes. Later a trumpet solo sang out over what came across as a body-littered battlefield. For time to time the more romantic ideas — of which there is no shortage — often carried by the violins, reminded us that the ballet Romeo and Juliet was written just a year before the cantata. The accordions put in more than one appearance. In fact, they are a recurrent feature all the way through to the close. The golden roar of the choir burned across the auditorium on many an occasion; they have been well tutored. Add to this that there was no shortage of evocations of the Russian winter. The Symphony episode (orchestra only) is packed with inventive coups, but it was in the final well-judged Constitution movement that favourable impressions crowded in. These included such minute details as the gently touched-in xylophone, and towards the close the aureate lava flow of the singing which filled both heart and hall. The Prokofiev is an amply-sized work in ten sections. For the most part these were played without noticeable breaks. Gergiev simply swept tirelessly onwards from one episode to the next; it works.

Gergiev, conducting without baton, has a memorably earnest stage image with a constantly fluttering right hand, that arm held at shoulder height. These forces clearly know him well so it all works.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.3 was finished in full score only as far as the first movement (Allegro brillante). The composer had set about adapting two movements from a discarded seventh symphony to make an Andante and Finale, but it took Taneyev to orchestrate those movements. Denis Matsuev presented just the Allegro brillante. He loomed physically large over the concert grand, which he dominated with a combination of panache, heroism and wit. His ability to counterpoint left-hand melody with a trilling right hand was remarkable. While “Homer nods” on occasion, this piece feels like an epitome of the late Tchaikovsky manner.

This was followed by a very substantial and inevitably planned encore with orchestra. Matsuev announced it simply as “Paganini”. Well, it was not the Rachmaninov. Instead in a combination of cordite, popping candy, black powder and feu d’artifice we had the piano and orchestra version of Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini. It served generously as an encore and should have lodged in the affections of quite a few people. When the Lutosławski was done, Matsuev played Liadov’s Musical Snuff-Box. For this he let loose with a massively impressive tinkling delicacy. The last note teetered on the edge of audibility, contrasting with the justified roar of applause that followed. I confess I did not recognise either encore and waited to hear the BBC broadcast to identify them.

Sadly I had to leave the concert during the interval to be sure of my train home, and so missed the Shostakovich. Still, this was a memorable evening and one that left me wanting to hear more of the Prokofiev, Lutosławski, Liadov, not to mention the ursine Matsuev.

Rob Barnett

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