Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra Recover from a Shockingly Bad Start

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rimsky-Korsakov and StravinskyKristóf Baráti (violin), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 9.10.2017. (AS)

Stravinsky – Concerto in D for string orchestra; Violin Concerto in D; The Firebird – Suite (1945 version)

Rimsky-KorsakovThe Tale of Tsar Saltan – Suite

Just 20 string players were assembled on the platform to begin this second of two concerts given by the Mariinsky Orchestra at Cadogan Hall. Since Stravinsky had written his concerto for the Basel Chamber Orchestra the size of the ensemble was absolutely appropriate. Gergiev’s conducting showed that he had the measure of the work’s style and content, but that’s all that one can write in a positive vein. The concerto is obviously a tricky piece to play. The players were continually struggling to find their notes, ensemble was approximate and intonation was painfully inaccurate. It was in fact a shockingly bad performance. During the previous evening the Mariinsky’s string section had produced playing of the highest quality, so one can only assume that inadequate rehearsal time was responsible for such a calamitous display.

After this experience it was a great reassurance to find the strings and indeed the whole orchestra in fine form for the Rimsky suite. There was an impressive warmth in the sound, which quite overcame the unflatteringly close and hard Cadogan acoustic, while textures were perfectly clear and solos brilliantly projected. The last of the three excerpts, The Three Wonders, had a particularly vivacious, sparkling quality.

After the interval it was Stravinsky again, in the shape of an exceedingly fine performance of the Violin Concerto by the Hungarian born violinist Kristóf Baráti. Baráti certainly gets a most beautiful quality of tone from the loaned Stradivarius instrument on which he plays, but it is also a very big, clear sound. His technique is absolutely immaculate. All these qualities served the brisk, rhythmically intricate outer movements of Stravinsky’s four-part concerto admirably, and Gergiev and the orchestra backed Baráti’s bold, assertive delivery to great effect with their crisp, attentive accompaniments. Still more notable was the poetry and eloquence Baráti brought to the solo line in the two inner aria movements. This was playing of the highest quality, deceptively simple, but of extraordinary sensibility. As an encore Baráti played the fourth movement of Ysaÿe’s second solo sonata, “Les furies”, to some acclaim, but a second Bach encore was perhaps too much, especially for some orchestral members, whose body language subtly indicated that it was time to move on.

With Simon Rattle’s recent and magnificent performances of the complete Firebird ballet still resonating in the mind (review), it was inevitable that Gergiev’s performance of the suite, with its reduced orchestration and elimination of some of the ballet’s most inspired passages, would fall a little short. But it was at least the 1945 suite, and not the less adequate 1919 version, for in the later selection we do get the delightful Dance of the Princesses and also some other important passages from the complete ballet. In its own terms the suite was magnificently played by the orchestra, and proved to be a triumphal finale to the concert programme itself, though Liadov’s brief Baba-Yaga was brilliantly played as an encore.

Alan Sanders

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