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Ionarts-at-Large: Gergiev's First Time

Gergiev’s first concert after officially being announced and presented as the incoming Principal Conductor of the Munich Philharmonic (see Valery Gergiev Signs Contract With Munich Philharmonic) couldn’t have been more symbolic.

Anton Bruckner—the orchestra’s musical house-god—coupled with contemporary Russian fare: Sofia Gubaidulina’s substantial, entrancingly wheezing bayan concerto. This combination of Russian music of the last 100 years and German romanticism, Gergiev’s foremost strength and his most easily argued weakness contains at once the promise and skepticism of his appointment in the orchestra-loving Bavarian capital.

There are plenty of other reasons why this ‘safe appointment’ may not be as clever or promising for the orchestra than it looks at first glance, but Gergiev’s performance of the Seventh Symphony wasn’t one of them: This was well executed Bruckner, neither celebrated—true—and certainly not butchered.

The word among colleagues who went to hear the same program the night before was purportedly one of disgruntled displeasure. Garish, superficial, loud… which sounded believable enough, given my experiences with Gergiev and Mahler in a 2011 concert (LSO, Leipzig, “a waste of time and energy”, review here), though I have also heard splendid Mahler (coupled with Strauss and Shchedrin) with stubbled maestro.

Sight-unseen, sound-unheard, a critic a little further north suggested helpfully that in this music—Bruckner—the orchestra could fly on autopilot well enough anyway. That’s good to know, in case the concert turned out well, after all and against all gleeful predictions. (Karl Popper might have called that “falsification-proofing” one’s arguments, though, and wagged a finger in admonishment.)

Certainly Bruckner is a composer Gergiev will yet grow further into, and have to, if he’s to make dear friends with Munich Bruckner-lovers. Given the benefit of the doubt, and considering his ability to master steep learning curves (as proven in Wagner), there is plenty of reason to be confident that well before 2020, the end of his initial contract, he’ll deliver a Bruckner Seventh where the intermediate climaxes don’t tread on the larger structure, where the clerical ammunition hasn’t been all spent after the first movement, where the sections of the orchestra enter with greater precision. But already present were touches of fine color and some very lovely pianissimo playing—and if “superficial” and “loud” might still have accurately described aspects of this performance, at least “garishness” was nowhere to be heard.

available at Amazon
S.Gubaidulina, Fachwerk, Silenzio,
G.Draugsvoll / Ø.Gimse / Trondheim SO

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.7,
B.Haitink / CSO
CSO Resound

More interesting than the Brucknerian nod to subscription audiences, was in any case Gubaidulina’s concert Fachwerk, performed by its dedicatee, Norwegian accordion player Geir Draugsvoll. (Last reviewed here when he gave a recital—including Gubaidulina—at the National Gallery of Art.)

Gergiev, who had given the UK premiere of the concerto with the LSO and performed it with his Mariinsky Orchestra at the White Nights Festival, must have worked hard on the piece, given how confidently the Munich Philharmonic strings and percussion—slightly out of their comfort zone in such repertoire—performed it. If using the bayan in her works constitutes an element of nostalgia for Mme. Gubaidulina, it’s not detectable explicitly in Fachwerk. Instead, what we hear are two breathing organisms—one the soloist and one the orchestra around him or her—who groan and rasp in atmospheric, shuddering ways, always just below the the average, contemporary-music-suspicious, audience member’s threshold of dissonance pain. To that effect Gubaidulina also throws a good deal of gently lyrical phrases in, to soften Fachwerk’s seductive blow.

It’s not an easy concerto to absorb or comprehend on first listening (that’s where Draugsvoll’s Naxos release of the work very helpfully and enjoyably comes in!), but it kept the audience successfully quiet, very quiet, for at least 20 minutes: No small feat on a wet, cold February day. After being on some of its best behavior I have heard from that crowd, a hint of coughing-punctuated restlessness stole back in, as Gubaidulina teases the listener with long cadenzas, deceptive recapitulations and re-starts… structuring the work like a series of increasingly smaller blocks the end of which cannot be predicted until just before it comes. A progression of thematic chords, a faint air of melted Bach and Berg’s Violin Concerto bring it to its well deserved close and brought all its performers and its composer (present) their well deserved applause.

Usefully, for countries where the accordion or bayan isn’t integral part of the culture but more the opening of a music-joke, Draugsvoll added a short encore that underscored the inherent possibilities and beauty of the instrument… Even if performing Piazzolla (Chiquilin de Bachin, uncommonly neat and nuanced) also means sailing close to accordion clichés.