Valery the Variable

By Sedgwick Clark

“He’s so variable.” That’s the first thing critics say about Valery Gergiev. He conducted his Mariinsky Orchestra three times at Carnegie Hall in an eight-day period early this month, interrupted by four Met performances (two on Saturday) and runouts to Newark and Washington, D.C. Even when he was busy at the Met, the orchestra was moonlighting under the leadership of Ignat Solzhenitsyn. Evidently, the man and his musicians never rest, to wit this link listing his next month and a half of concerts:

Each of the three Carnegie concerts was devoted to a single composer: Stravinsky (10/10), Shostakovich (10/11), and Rachmaninoff (10/15). Gergiev seems to me most unpredictable with his own orchestra, the Mariinsky, which by all reports is subject to his rehearsal and programming whims. His performing of Stravinsky’s first three ballets in order of composition was a great idea but in practice overly ambitious. The Firebird (complete) was best, right up with Boulez/New York Philharmonic (1975) and Dutoit/Montreal (1986) as the best I’ve heard in concert—dramatic, dynamic, gorgeously played, with a sparkling color palette. But Pétrouchka (1911 orchestration) was thickly textured, monochromatic, often too loud in quiet passages, and, most alarming, humorless. The Rite of Spring’s huge dynamic range was squashed, with the fat forte of the opening winds—Stravinsky’s “awakening of nature, the scratching, gnawing, wiggling of birds and beasts”—totally without mystery. The Mariinsky players were exhausted, and it showed in their spotty ensemble. When Gergiev returned to the stage for his second bow he turned to the audience, announced that it was Verdi’s 200th birthday, and proceeded to conduct an electrically charged overture to La Forza del destino! Who says they were tired?

Gergiev’s shattering performance of Shostakovich’s wartime Eighth Symphony left me shell shocked. Only four times before have I been so emotionally wrung out in a concert hall: a Bernstein/NYPhil Mahler Ninth in September 1970, Colin Davis’s Beethoven Missa solemnis with the London Symphony two years ago this week, and Rostropovich’s Britten War Requiem in January 1979 and Shostakovich Eighth in April 1986, both with the Washington National Symphony.

It took me a couple of movements to get into Gergiev’s interpretation. It’s dicey to impose extra-musical interpretations onto symphonic works, but the confluence of Shostakovich’s life and the often pictorial episodes in his music are difficult to ignore. Whichever stance one takes—music as pure expression or a reflection of the composer’s experiences—Gergiev struck me as understated in the first movement climax. I fancifully imagine the Nazis marching into Russia at this point, which will seem overly literal to some. Rostropovich’s players peeled the paint off Carnegie’s walls with their fortississimos, and the sudden, gut-clutching plunge of tremolando strings from fff to sfpp, after 34 pages of ear-splitting onslaught, induced audible gasps from Rostropovich’s audience. (Perhaps Gergiev’s cozying up to Putin is a liability when measured against the sensibility of a man who grew up during the Stalin purges.) Gergiev’s brisk tempo in the second-movement Allegretto skated over its Mahlerian grotesquerie, but the mechanized power of the third movement had its full effect, climaxing with brutal timpani and the grinding dissonance of the first movement. Throughout Gergiev’s fourth-movement Largo, one could hear the proverbial pin drop. Woodwinds strike up a perky tune in the last movement, but optimism is short-lived and the violent attacks from the first movement return. The coda—a vision of the abyss—is one of most unsettling passages in all of music.

An interview with Shostakovich about his Eighth Symphony, quoted in Laurel E. Fay’s biography, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford), was published a month before its premiere: “I can sum up the philosophical conception of my new work in three words: life is beautiful. Everything that is dark and gloomy will rot away, vanish, and the beautiful will triumph.” Huh? I doubt that anyone in Carnegie Hall’s audience would agree, for they sat through the work with uncommon attention. Gergiev stood still for half a minute after the final double bass pizzicatos had died away, and I felt as if everyone—performers and audience alike—had communed in the infinite.

The 1954 edition of Grove prophesied that the music of Rachmaninoff would be forgotten. Not if performances like Gergiev’s are around. The knife-edged drama of the old Kondrashin recording remains my touchstone in the Symphonic Dances (1942), but Gergiev may have surpassed his fellow Russian in the nostalgic Lento assai in the third dance, luxuriating in Rachmaninoff’s luscious melodies to a degree that makes me glad he’s away from home so often.

Russian Rambo
Gergiev’s taste in pianists is not mine. Where once he trotted out the frenzied Russian-American Alexander Toradze, on this tour he brought the muscle-bound Russian Rambo Denis Matsuev to pummel Shostakovich’s early, delightful Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings. Loud and fast are the primary weapons in his arsenal. Oblivious to this work’s nose-thumbing Rossinian wit, this 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition winner plowed through the last-movement’s parodistic cadenza of beer hall songs and folk tunes with harried determination. Rarely have I felt myself at such odds with a soloist.

His take-no-prisoners view of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto eschewed lyricism, poetry, and tonal beauty, qualities well apparent in the composer’s own ancient recording. Matsuev doesn’t bang, really, he’s just repellently forceful, even when playing pianissimo, and he only plays notes instead of phrases. To no surprise, he opted for the heavy chordal cadenza in the first movement. The small cut in the finale (the Meno mosso two bars after 52 to the a tempo at 54) is often made and does no harm. Gergiev’s accompaniments were strong and supportive—some of his most reliable conducting in these three concerts. In December he performs the Shostakovich concerto in Paris with Daniil Trifonov, an impressive young competition winner with a notably colorful tonal palette; now that’s a performance I’d love to hear.

Gergiev at the Met
A final word on the two operas Gergiev conducted at the Met: Shostakovich’s The Nose and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It’s always best to attend Gergiev performances toward the end of a run, whether at the Met or the Philharmonic. Nearly all the reviewers complained about slow tempos at the opening of Onegin; I caught his final performance (10/12) and couldn’t imagine more effective, naturally flowing tempos. The Nose (10/8) was even more fun than in its first go-around, two seasons ago. There aren’t any big tunes to whistle on the way home, but the production is a hoot. One wonders how Shostakovich’s political satire got through the censors.

Looking Forward
My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):
10/24 Zankel Hall at 7:00. Tetzlaff Quartet. Haydn: Quartet in C major, Op. 20, No. 2. Bartók: Quartet No. 4. Beethoven: Quartet in A minor, Op. 132.
10/26 Metropolitan Opera. Britten: Midsummer Night’s Dream. James Conlon (cond.); Kim, Wall, DeShong, Davies, Kaiser, Simpson, M. Rose, Costello.

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