Feature Review: Tchaikovsky Symphony Cycle – Mariinsky Orchestra/Gergiev in New York

Written by: Lewis M. Smoley


Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 (Winter Daydreams)

Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 (Little Russian)

Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Symphony No.3 in D, Op.29 (Polish)

Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Mariinsky Orchestra

Valery Gergiev

Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Thursday, Sunday & Monday, October 6, 9 & 10, 2011

As the centerpiece of their five-concert Carnegie Hall series focusing on the works of Tchaikovsky, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra presented the composer’s numbered symphony cycle (which therefore excluded Manfred, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony after Byron’, Opus 58) in an interesting sequence of couplings that began with the first and last and worked in toward the middle. Each program juxtaposed one of the last three symphonies with one of the less-well-known first three, a fascinating opportunity to judge the respective merits of each group.

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

Gergiev let the slow movements of the earlier symphonies make their own case rather than emphasizing rhapsodic phrases (although his treatment of the romantic theme in the finale of the Second was affected). He also refrained from aggressively driving faster music to the point of virtual collapse, yet still generated plenty of energy and intensity, maintaining an underlying sense of urgency and sustained the enthusiasm of the sometimes heavily taxed players. There was much force in the development section of the First Symphony’s opening movement, and in Gergiev’s aggressive treatment the closing section of the Second Symphony’s finale.

Gergiev imbued the slow movements of ‘Winter Daydreams’ and the ‘Polish’ with an aura of Russian solemnity, capturing the wistful serenity that opens the former and the consoling atmosphere that permeates the latter. The march that replaces a slow movement in the ‘Little Russian’ might accompany a leisurely stroll through the park. Scherzos in each of the early symphonies have a Mendelssohnian character, light and airy, but were played with vigor. And when sheer power was needed, as in each of the finales, the orchestra came through with impressive dynamic force, from the grandiose opening chords that begin the last movement of the Second and those that open the finale of the Third, to the surging force that propels the First to its bombastic conclusion, stimulating listeners’ interest in getting to know the early symphonies better and re-evaluating them.

Although Gergiev clearly recognizes how much the Third Symphony is akin to ballet music, especially in the polonaise finale, his readings of the final three symphonies were noticeably operatic in character. Gergiev seems to view these works as symphonic dramas, judging from his exaggerated treatment of lyrical material, with mannerisms that direct precisely how each note of a melodic phrase should be played. In powerful and fast passages, urgency and intensity were the prime movers. Gergiev often accelerated these to the limit, presumably to heighten their dramatic impact, but almost lost his bearings in his maniacal, breakneck treatment of the development section of the Sixth’s opening movement and the coda of the corresponding movement of the Fourth.

The ‘Pathétique’ provided ample opportunity for Gergiev to work his theatrical magic upon the music. He wallowed in the dark, brooding passage that opens the work as if to set the stage for the grotesque fantasy that bursts forth in the development, pacing it broadly, yet with an underlying edginess. Lyrical themes, such as the romantic one of the Andante cantabile movement of the Fifth, often sounded like arias-without-words, nuanced with slight hesitations. Melodic cello passages sang with fervent passion in the second movement of the Fourth, and violins wrung every ounce of emotion from the arching second theme of the Fifth’s opening movement. Climaxes were thrilling. Only the end of the Fifth seemed slightly weakened by the long outpouring of emotions that preceded it.

A great deal of credit for the success of these performances also goes to the Mariinsky players, performed brilliantly in spite of the grueling schedule. Violins had a consistently brilliant sound, mellowed with a special Russian ‘white nights’ coloration; cellos impressed with full tone and vitality; brass was robust yet aptly balanced with the rest of the orchestra; and woodwinds played with style, character and precise articulation, not least clarinetist Victor Kulyk for his hauntingly beautiful solo during the first movement of the ‘Pathétique’. There were though a few problems. The pizzicato movement of the Fourth began too quietly to distinguish the melodic line, and Gergiev might have paused a bit longer at the end of the overly-brisk march movement of the Sixth before jumping hurriedly into the dolorous finale. But these concerns were dwarfed by the consistently impressive playing and the excitement generated.

Gergiev’s ‘creative’ flexibility in both nuanced phrasing and tempo fluctuation may not be to everyone’s taste. But rather than try to resolve or overcome the many structural problems these symphonies present, treating them as dramas at least diverts our attention away from formal considerations to emphasize the extraordinary talents that made Tchaikovsky such a great composer for the theater. Gergiev ended the final concert with a robust rendition of ‘Trépak’ from The Nutcracker.

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