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30.3.09

LSO and Gergiev

Valery Gergiev takes pride in being able to keep his daredevil schedule, regularly conducting several ensembles, appearing constantly as guest conductor on the fly-by circuit, tirelessly promoting Russian operas and symphonic works around the world. He even has time, as he showed again last summer, to get involved in politics -- disastrously, as many outside of Russia saw the concert Gergiev led in Tskhinvali, the bombed-out capital of South Ossetia. Many cultural commentators thought that Gergiev may finally have overplayed his hand, that the backlash of sentiment against such a ham-handed act of musical propaganda (choosing Shostakovich's "Leningrad" symphony to sum up the conflict between Georgia and Russia) would destroy his reputation, if his closeness to Vladimir Putin, which has certainly not harmed Gergiev's career, had not already done so. Anyone who had this thought, it turns out, sold Gergiev too short.

As if to prove that point, Gergiev is leading a North American tour of the London Symphony Orchestra at the moment -- sorry for the VISA hassles, chaps -- with, as its centerpiece, several of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonies, most notably the rarely programmed sixth symphony, one of the most bone-chilling symphonic statements on the horrors of war (leaving Alex Ross, for one, in a "cold sweat"). Prokofiev composed it in the years immediately following the devastation of Russia during World War II. Unfortunately for him the work was repudiated by the Soviet Composers Union in 1948 as an example not only of overly dissonant music but of anti-patriotism. Its performance was banned, and Prokofiev died without hearing it performed again -- here, perhaps, was the work that Gergiev should have led at that concert in Ossetia. The sound of the LSO, the oldest orchestra in the United Kingdom, remains extremely good, remarkably unified and refined, with only a couple flubs in the horns and some minor attack imprecision in the violin section. Without spending a lot of time investigating the current state of the personnel, it looks like a relatively young ensemble, and the sense of vitality and willingness to be pushed out of their comfort zone come through in the sound.

Gergiev, who took the reins as principal conductor in 2004, will hopefully begin undertook a Prokofiev cycle immediately, although for Philips rather than as part of the generally worthy LSO Live series, which since 1999 has been a run-away success, with cycles of Mahler, Sibelius, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Brahms, Elgar, among others. Heard live, it was an intense sixth symphony, from the sharp trombone calls, melancholy viola solos, and siren-like horn swoops of the first movement to the deafening swells of sound followed by stunned silences in the last. It was the second movement that was most terrifying, the motif of a sort of grim, robotic march pervading, at one point highlighting the music boxish nursery rhyme of harp and celesta against a menacing snarl of brass. The encore, a section of the score for Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, including the Dance of the Montagues and Capulets, opened with an introduction that sounded very much like it was part of the sixth symphony.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, London Symphony Overcomes the Conductor's Sluggish Start (Washington Post, March 30)

Tim Smith, Gergiev, Volodin, London Symphony in brilliant Kennedy Center concert for WPAS (Clef Notes, March 30)

Jeremy Eichler, Gergiev, LSO bring wartime Prokofiev to Symphony Hall (Boston Globe, March 27)

John von Rhein, Gergiev's elite London orchestra seems as Russian as the ruble (Chicago Tribune, March 24)

Mark Swed, Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony in Costa Mesa (Culture Monster, March 20)

Timothy Mangan, London Symphony gives Prokofiev his due in O.C. (Orange County Register, March 20)
A much lighter first half provided some balance, with a bubbly reading of Prokofiev's first symphony, an experiment with neoclassicism that sounds a lot like Ravel in many places, as in the first movement's second theme, as chipper and svelte as a passepied. The second movement was a more refined minuet, circular gestures from Gergiev communicating balletic grace, but while the Gavotta of the third movement was a little clunky, the fourth was a very fast Offenbach-style galop, controlled by Gergiev with the tiniest of gestures. Beethoven's fourth piano concerto is hardly fluff, but Gergiev had a challenge keeping the LSO aligned with an often unpredictable solo in the hands of Alexei Volodin. The Russian pianist is a Gergiev favorite -- he played the same concerto under Gergiev last fall with the Mariinsky orchestra -- but it would have better to have had the other pianist featured on this tour, Vladimir Feltsman playing the Prokofiev second concerto. Volodin's tendency to rush ahead in fast passages undid most of the effect of his blistering technique, although he did have an appropriately enigmatic take on the opening of the first movement and the other somber and introspective solo piano moments. Volodin was stronger on his own, in a fluttering encore of Rachmaninoff's G# minor prelude (op. 32/12).

The next orchestra to visit Washington thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society will be the Simón Bolívar Youth
Orchestra of Venezuela
under dynamic conductor Gustavo Dudamel next Monday (April 6, 8 pm) at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program includes Ravel's
Daphnis et Chloe (Suite No. 2), Castellanos's Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Good luck finding a ticket.

3 comments:

Joe said...

"Gergiev, who took the reins as principal conductor in 2004, will hopefully begin a Prokofiev cycle as part of the generally worthy LSO Live series..."

Gergiev has already recorded a Prokofiev cycle with the LSO, though it was put out by Philips rather than LSO Live (on account, I believe, of contractual obligations that Gergiev then owed to Philips, though I believe that these have since lapsed - hence Gergiev's debut on the LSO Live label with his Mahler cycle).

Charles T. Downey said...

Of course he did. Duh. Correction noted. Is it still widely available? Arkiv still has it.

jfl said...

It's still widely available... which is not to say that it's highly desirable. (See reference to it in "Best of 2008".)

"The recent Gergiev cycle was much hailed of course; as a whole, I found it curiously unsatisfactory. Something didn’t seem right, even if the grittier approach, compared to Ozawa, certainly benefited Symphonies Three or Six, which are very fine with the brooding, sloppy Russian maestro. The sound is good, but not great and too dry, the playing very good, but not outstanding. Almost all the symphonies have great moments, but none an unbroken arch. The Seventh lacks pensive beauty."