Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra return with revelatory Shostakovich

Thu Nov 09, 2017 at 2:33 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Denis Matsuev performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Valery Gergiev and the Marionsky Orchestra Wednesday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Denis Matsuev performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra Wednesday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Say what you want about Valery Gergiev’s peripatetic schedule, the hardest-working man in classical show business always delivers the goods.

Such was the case Wednesday night at Symphony Center when the Russian conductor led his Mariinsky Orchestra in a generous program that stretched to two and three-quarter-hours including encores. Not quite as epic as the orchestra’s 2013 concert in which Gergiev led performance of all three of Stravinsky Diaghilev ballets, but a pretty ambitious evening nonetheless.

Considering the manic schedule of the current Mariinsky U.S. tour–a nonstop two weeks with only a single day off and a different city almost every night—the Russian musicians gave a fine accounting of themselves Wednesday night.

Under Gergiev’s leadership, the Mariinsky remains an impressive ensemble with rich, dark strings, big, characterful winds and commanding brass. The corporate sound is more punchy than refined and occasionally raucous but always responsive to their music director’s unique floor-trader conducting mode.

Gergiev led in his patented, restless, regular-guy style—no podium and no baton, cueing, coaxing and shaping the music with his arms and finger-wiggling gestures.

For all the popularity of Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies, much of his music still seems elusive to Western conductors and orchestras. Anyone can whip up superficial excitement in the Fifth Symphony or superficial tragedy in the Eighth. But the other, more challenging symphonies often feel like we’re only getting part of the story. When a Russian conductor steeped in this repertoire leads a Shostakovich performance with real mastery–as Gennady Rozhdestvensky did with Shostakovich’s First Symphony last year, suddenly the music feels complete and we get it.

One had the same feeling with the extraordinary performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 Wednesday night.  For all the many local performances over the years, the Ninth has always come across as a less successful work—an uneasy amalgam of dark shadows and jokey-ness with a belated bravura finale.

Yet from the purposeful opening notes, Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra presented a firm, cohesive and eloquent Ninth that seemed all of a piece. Everything—tempos, balancing, solos, had such a natural and inevitable feeling of rightness it made one appreciate the work anew.

The off-center, not-funny Haydnisms of the opening movement seemed to make bitter sense, with the dazzling woodwind playing, the piccolo especially. The second movement clarinet solos likewise had a pensive idiomatic feeling.

The trombones’ baleful blast that opens the Largo section was jarring and implacable, setting the scene for Yuri Radzevich’s long beautifully turned bassoon solo, touching in its sense of a fragile human voice in a malign landscape.

Unlike many, Gergiev took the finale’s Allegretto marking at face value, making the music seem heavier, strange and unsettling with a burst of acceleration only in the closing section. This Ninth was one of those rare things,  a revelatory performance that changed one’s perception of an often-heard work.

The original 1913 score of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was lost in a fire after the composer fled the Soviet Union after the Revolution. A decade later Prokofiev reconstructed the work as best he could; but with the original still lost to history, it’s an open question how much of the Second Piano Concerto is entirely new.

That may account for the unconvincing hybrid nature of the work. The first movement is magnificent, a big richly spun and eloquent inspiration that deftly melds virtuosic solo display within an expansive lyricism tempered by the composer’s acerbic style. Yet Prokofiev’s concerto goes to hell in the three movements that follow, with each section piling up the keyboard challenges in music of increasingly empty flash and superficial triviality.

Denis Matsuev didn’t convince one that Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is an overlooked masterpiece but his brand of brawny virtuosity proved undeniably commanding. Matsuev conveyed the brooding introspection of the opening movement and his iron-fingered technique conquered all of Prokofiev’s myriad demands with remarkable power and spiky virtuosity, handling all the hurdles like child’s play. Gergiev and the Mariinsky members lent alert and equally high-powered support.

After all the sonic noise and fury, the enthusiastic applause brought Matsuev back out for an encore of Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableaux, Op. 39, No. 2—rendered with cool, poised delicacy.

Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben closed the evening. Here one would have liked greater tonal refinement and there were minor but perceptible tuning and ensemble lapses that showed that the Mariinsky is still not quite in the top tier of international ensembles. 

The Russian lower strings opened with a deep commanding statement and the ensuing Hero’s Theme went with confident stride, Gergiev characteristically taking the tempo at a fleeter pace than usual.

The big moments of Strauss’s autobiographical tone poem were imposing, as in a duly rambunctious Battle Scene. The Strauss quotations in the Hero’s Works of Peace were all firmly put across by Gergiev and the orchestra, with the final hushed dialogue between solo horn and violin sensitively rendered.

Yet overall there was a rather garrulous quality to the music-making when one wanted more expressive detailing and nuance. Also missing in action was the score’s humor and subversive wit; for all the power and projection, this was decidedly straight-faced Strauss. The treatment of the Hero’s Adversaries was muted for the composer’s withering depiction of music critics as inconsequential, whining wimps. One brief digital slip apart, Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici brought gleam and personality to his violin depiction of the Hero’s Beloved–nearly as much personality as in the concertmaster’s refulgent Chia Pet-like crown of hair.

The extended ovations brought Gergiev back out for two Wagner encores: a glowing account, albeit with some wiry string tone, of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, and the Prelude to Act 3 of the same opera in a fast and fiery rendition to close the evening.

Valery Gergiev leads the Mariinsky Orchestra 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana. The program  includes Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919) and Denis Matsuev as soloist in Shchedrin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

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