Maestro Valery Gergiev is one of classical music's most peripatetic conductors; already head of the Mariinsky Orchestra (an association begun in 1988), principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (since 2007), and principal conductor of the World Orchestra for Peace; in 2016 he will add the Munich Philharmonic to that list. One assumes he will still find time for repeated guest appearances with the Met, La Scala, New York, and Rotterdam orchestras.
While his conducting technique is efficient and generally understated, his gestures are often as furtive as the late Wilhelm Furtwängler's. Conducting with neither a podium nor a baton, his right hand's fingers are often spread and seem ready to take individual flight. Nonetheless, the performers know what he wants and deliver it with precision and passion.
On January 31, in the first of two Carolina Performing Arts programs played in fewer than 24 hours at the University of North Carolina's Memorial Hall, the young pianist Behzod Abduraimov (born in 1990) played Sergei Prokofiev's 1921 Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26. If listening to Abduraimov's playing is a joy, watching him can prove distracting, as his head periodically disappears behind the piano's fallboard, then pops up again rather like a jack-in-the-box as the rest of his body bounces along in rhythm.
The scintillating conclusion of the concerto's opening movement encouraged some in the audience to applaud, but Gergiev, brooking no such interruptions, very quickly began the second movement, with its Gershwinesque solo passages quickly following. This gave Abduraimov opportunity to display his lyrical gifts, in contrast to the percussive passagework so much in evidence in the first and third movements.
Unlike many other Russian piano concerto composers (think Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian), Prokofiev writes no memorable melodies here. He flits from one idea to another in a crazy-quilt of multi-hued sonic colors, writing totally idiomatic music for both piano and orchestra.
Abduraimov's performance was brilliant, his pyrotechnical pianistic wizardry earning him a well-deserved standing ovation from the packed house at Memorial Hall. A solo encore, a Tchaikovsky Nocturne, was an elegant contrast to the Prokofiev, its legato and mellifluous sound demonstrating another element of Abduraimov's artistry. This is a pianist to follow.
After intermission, Gergiev led an impassioned reading of what many believe to be Dmitri Shostakovich's greatest symphony, Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65. It may well be that none but Russian orchestras can grasp with totality the intensity of this work, composed in 1943 in the midst of the horrors of World War II. In the opening movement (Adagio-Allegro non troppo), we were enveloped in sorrow, especially in the poignant closing moments when the strings play background tremolandos, their bows barely moving, to a solo woodwind threnody.
Each of the following four movements carried on the musical cri du coeur of a nation beset by dictators both foreign and domestic. The sardonic dialogues of the second movement, with its picturesque percussion ornaments, were followed by the perpetual-motion toccata-like third movement (Allegro non troppo), punctuated by mocking trumpet fanfares with snare-drum commentary. Gergiev created an almost unbearable tension as this in-lieu-of-a-scherzo movement in the guise of a march, beginning with the viola section in fortissimo unison, seemed to sweep all before it into a rush to oblivion.
Without pause, the fourth movement, Largo, continued the threnodic theme, this time in the form of a passacaglia with a powerful theme and variations which include treating the passacaglia melody in canon with itself. A plaintive passage highlighted the piccolo playing of one member of this orchestra's superb woodwind section. Again without pause, the final Allegretto appears to move the work towards a redemptive C Major; this proves to be illusory, as the bassoon's stilted melody and the flute's "look, I'm playing in C MAJOR!" counterpoint lead through chiaroscuro modes and contrapuntal conversations to a return of the loudest section of the opening movement, reminding us of where we began. While the work ends quietly, with questioning voices of bass clarinet and English horn, the final C Major pedal harmony never seems secure.
This is powerful music, led by a conductor recently described by Time magazine as one of the leading artists in the world. He showed, through the collective artistry of the musicians of the Mariinsky Orchestra, why this symphony is both very seldom heard and very necessary to hear. I cannot imagine a better performance.
A brief sixteen hours after leaving Memorial Hall with the unsettling mood of the Eighth Symphony of Shostakovich, Valery Gergiev was back (on the afternoon of February 1) to conduct Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100.
With the Mariinsky, Gergiev seats his string players in the order preferred by Arturo Toscanini, among others: first violins front left; cellos and contrabasses next to them; violas in the center; second violins on the conductor's right. The characteristic weight of the Russian orchestral sound is directly related to the number of contrabasses: eight of them, with ten cellos, ten violas, and twenty-five violins. The stage was crowded with the addition of the nine-foot Steinway piano; Gergiev stood behind the front-and-center piano, which was in good shape except for the usual problem of its highest notes, which do not 'ring' like the rest.
Preceded onstage by pianist Denis Matsuev, Gergiev barely let the applause for his entrance die down before cuing the familiar opening horn motif of the Tchaikovsky First, perhaps heard by many in the USA for the first time when performed by Van Cliburn on television after his return from winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. (His subsequent recording of the work became the best-selling classical-music recording of all time.)
While they have worked together many times, Gergiev and Matsuev seemed out-of-sync more than once, engaging in a tug-of-war with tempos. Matsuev would push ahead, and Gergiev was not inclined to bring the orchestra along. While the pianist's double-octave technique was as bravura as any, his heavy use of the sustaining pedal tended to blur many of the most rapid passages. The performance, perhaps due to the short turnaround time between concerts, was rather matter-of-fact. Matsuev's most musical playing, in contrast to his percussive playing of the fortissimo passages, was in the concerto's more lyric moments, where he drew out beautifully singing tones from the piano. Similarly expressive was his solo encore, from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons.
Prokofiev's war-time Fifth Symphony concluded the program, a little over two weeks past the 60th anniversary of its first performance, conducted by the composer on January 13, 1945. He had just reached the podium when cannon fire erupted outside in celebration of a major Red Army victory over Nazi forces. Prokofiev waited for the cannon fire to end before beginning his symphony's premiere. (For an excellent summary of this work's history and form, see the program notes by Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn, of Cary, NC, here:)
The orchestra hit its stride with the Allegro marcato second movement, following Gergiev's lead all the way to the exciting accelerando/crescendo conclusion. The orchestra's timpanist was exemplary throughout the concert, as were the woodwind soloists (flute, oboe, clarinet), who shone brightly in the Allegro giocoso finale. The concluding coda brought the audience once more to its feet; Gergiev responded with a silvery, sensual offering of non-Russian music: the Prelude to Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin.