The Gergiev Phenomenon at its Unsurpassed Best

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky: Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 5.3.2019. (AS)

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov

TchaikovskyThe Nutcracker, Op.71 – excerpts
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74, Pathétique

As on previous occasions in Cadogan Hall, both the Mariinsky Orchestra and thus the audience took their time to assemble, and the concert began ten minutes late. What followed was not the usual suite from The Nutcracker ballet, but a selection comprising numbers Nos. 6–12 from Act I of the complete score, and then No.21, the ‘Pas de deux’ from Act II. No doubt Gergiev felt that a first half of some 28 minutes was a bit mean, so he added an unheralded extra item: No.20 from Act II, the ‘Valse des fleurs’, familiar as the concluding number of the ever-popular suite. This helped to fill things out a little, but it was a case of never mind the length but experience the quality, for the playing of the Mariinsky was superlative under Gergiev’s magnetic direction. On this occasion the conductor did not use his toothpick-like baton but relied on his bare hands. As ever, there was much fluttering of the fingers, but to wonderful effect on the players.

After a lengthy interval the Mariinsky Orchestra eventually reappeared and we experienced a very extraordinary performance of the Pathétique Symphony. Those who like their Tchaikovsky played pretty straight will not have approved, for Gergiev introduced variations of phrase and tempo that even outdid the kind of subjective approach to the score favoured by the great romantic conductors of the past such as Furtwängler and Mengelberg in their recorded performances. But perhaps Tchaikovsky can withstand such an approach in a way that his contemporary Brahms certainly cannot. It was in fact a quite wonderful realisation of the familiar masterpiece. Gergiev and his instrumentalists must have performed the music so many times, but they brought tremendous freshness to the work, as if it was an entirely new experience for them. The quality of the playing was quite exceptional and though the dimensions of the Cadogan Hall stage dictate a slightly reduced string section, the warmth of sound produced by those players was deeply impressive.

Gergiev’s romantic approach ensured that every expressive moment of the first movement registered with enormous pungency; and how he ensured such a sharp attack at the beginning of the development section with a mere wave of the fingers seemed beyond belief.

The second movement was taken at a pretty smart tempo: the emotional expression was profound and yet the music danced with much charm as well. Brilliant, combustible energy characterised the third movement and Gergiev wisely stifled the applause that often breaks out after its ending climax by moving at once on to the finale. This was played with a depth of emotion that cannot be easily described: it was as though the strings were weeping in their descending motif at the beginning of this movement and throughout it: the work ended in a kind of collective groan of despair.

I have been told that at times Gergiev can achieve heights of performance denied to any of his colleagues and rivals, but my experience of his conducting up till the present has caused me to be a little sceptical, since it has varied between distinctly unimpressive and undoubtedly very good yet not superlative. But now I have experienced the Gergiev phenomenon at its unsurpassed best.

Alan Sanders    

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