Edinburgh International Festival – LSO/Gergiev Prokofiev Cycle

Friday 15 August:
Prokofiev
Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.40
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.44

Saturday 16 August:
Prokofiev
Symphony No.4 in C, Op.47
Symphony-Concerto in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op.125
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Sunday 17 August:
Prokofiev
Symphony No.6 in E minor, Op.111
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor, Op.131

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Tatjana Vassiljeva (cello)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 17 August, 2008
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953)It was an irony that Prokofiev himself might well have relished. It turned out that the high point of Valery Gergiev’s Prokofiev symphony cycle, over three consecutive evenings at the Edinburgh International Festival, should have been not one of his seven symphonies (actually there are eight) but that ‘Cinderella’ amongst his works, one to which he had devoted so much time and effort, the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra.

The work, begun in Paris in 1933 as a commission from fellow-émigré, Gregor Piatigorsky, was completed in its original form in 1938 when it was coolly received. Prokofiev returned to it in 1947 when the young Rostropovich played the piece in a version for cello and piano. As a result, in 1951 Prokofiev substantially reworked the concerto and in this version it received its premiere in 1952 with Sviatoslav Richter making his debut as a conductor (at the time he was unable to play the piano because of a broken finger). The definitive version, with the title of Symphony-Concerto, was not to be heard until after the composer’s death in 1953 (he died on same day as did Stalin) and it was to be the inspiration for Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto of 1959.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-75) Mention of the Shostakovich is peculiarly appropriate since this received one of its first Western performances in the Usher Hall in 1961, with Rostropovich, Lorin Maazel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra – the composer in attendance – an event I vividly remember. In much the same way as that performance introduced many in the audience to Rostropovich’s playing, nearly half-a-century later this absolutely searing reading of the Prokofiev performed the double service of presenting Tatjana Vassiljeva and placing Prokofiev’s work in its rightful place at the heart of his symphonic canon rather than languishing at its periphery.

Tatjana Vassiljeva with Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich (1927-2007) 31-year-old Tatjana Vassiljeva was born in Novosibirsk and is, as yet, relatively little known despite having performed with a variety of distinguished conductors. If what we heard on this occasion is anything to go by, all that is about to change, for her playing had the charisma and projection of the young Rostropovich at the height of his powers. Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto is not the easiest work to bring off. Not only does the solo part place titanic demands on the cellist but the work itself lacks immediately appealing melodies (such as those in the Fifth Symphony).

Any such considerations were swept aside with Vassiljeva’s first entrance – power, beauty of tone and charisma combining to a point where a whole audience was grabbed by its collective throats and was hanging on every note. This was undoubtedly a great performance, the LSO rising to the occasion in hot pursuit, and was all the more valuable for the fact that justice was finally done to a great but neglected work.

In 2004 Gergiev and the LSO mounted a week-long Prokofiev cycle in London (at the Barbican Hall), a set of recordings being the result. On that occasion they also included the Revised Version of Symphony No.4 (Opus 112) as well as the Original (Opus 47), the latter alone being settled for in Edinburgh.

Debate continues as to whether Prokofiev’s symphonies are the genuine article. Several certainly have their genesis elsewhere, the First as an ironic hommage to Haydn, the Third in the opera “The Fiery Angel” and the Fourth in the ballet, The Prodigal Son. Even the great final trio of symphonies frequently bucks the accepted trend when it comes to layout – the structure of the Sixth’s first movement is unlike just about any other symphony first-movement. Ironically, the iconoclastically rebarbative Second actually opens with something very close to a conventional sonata movement.

A USSR stamp celebrating the Birth Centenary of Sergei ProkofievIn a sense, however, such arguments as to whether the symphonies are the genuine article is ultimately fruitless. The important thing to bear in mind is that whatever their different geneses and structural oddities, in successful performances (as these undoubtedly were) Prokofiev’s symphonies stack up and offer a genuine symphonic experience. It is just that – like Shostakovich – Prokofiev approaches the symphony from a different perspective.

Only in the sparkling finale of the ‘Classical’ Symphony did one feel that the LSO had finally been let off the leash. Earlier, the comparatively large body of 40 strings and the relaxed tempos led to a distinctly lumpen feel in the first movement, homage slipping over into parody, whilst the ‘Gavotte’ third movement was like nothing so much as a polar bear dancing very, very gingerly. However in the slow movement there was real sophistication in the inner string parts and here Gergiev found a genuine quietness as well as weight.

Things really hit stride with the Second Symphony, which was a revelation. Gergiev, now armed with a baton, was clearly in his element, unleashing the first movement’s unremitting hubbub with real power and precisely locating its jugular. The extended ‘Theme and Variations’ that forms the work’s second movement opened with a magical moment – gently pulsating strings and a memorably fine oboe solo (from Emanuel Abbühl), the moment reprised at the work’s close. Gergiev was particularly successful at characterising the Variations, crepuscular one moment, jazzy in its syncopation at another and with the LSO strings providing exceptional power at the climaxes. This made the best possible case for an underplayed work.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasBy way of respite the First Violin Concerto was interpolated between the Second and Third Symphonies. Leonidas Kavakos offered secure intonation in its more stratospheric reaches and a welcome delicacy throughout. On the downside there was a certain lack of import to his tone in the mercurial scherzo’s more aggressive moments and Gergiev rather dragged the tempo at in the tick-tock finale but this was an eloquent and understated reading.

The Third Symphony, culled from the opera “The Fiery Angel”, with its tale of religious-sexual obsession set in a convent (shades of Powell and Pressburger’s movie “Black Narcissus” which deals with the same subject albeit set in a convent in the Himalayas) opened promisingly enough – the first movement’s extreme harmonic density might almost have been designed for the LSO in full cry – and the succeeding Andante was aptly contemplative, showcasing the now-enhanced quality of the orchestra’s strings. The scurrying, spectral scherzo was however slightly fuzzy at the edges, partly one suspects a result of Gergiev (now baton-less) who, on occasion, can hinder as well as inspire an orchestra by the very imprecision of his beat. By the time of finale’s sledgehammer blocks of sound (in the opera at this point the heroine Renata’s dementia provokes the intervention of the Grand Inquisitor, the horror of the knight Ruprecht and the delight of his co-spectators Mephistopheles and Faust) there was a definite case of aural exhaustion, nothing having been left in reserve, and in consequence the work really failed to culminate as it can.

Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) The Fourth Symphony – the Original Version being a Koussevitzky commission – opened the following evening’s concert. It’s one of those rare works that exists in two completely different versions. The Original (Opus 47) was drawn from the music for the ballet The Prodigal Son, which held its place in the dance repertoire (including Nureyev as late as 1973).

The symphony was thrown together at great speed, largely on train journeys during a hectic tour of the States in 1930, and Prokofiev returned to it in 1947 producing a much-padded out and more self-consciously ‘heroic’ version (Opus 112). Sir Edward Downes performed both versions in a Maida Vale BBC Symphony Orchestra concert a few years ago, conducted from memory, an astonishing feat. To nail my colours to the mast, I am firmly of the opinion that in this case Prokofiev’s first thoughts were the best, the composer avoiding the inflation of the much-expanded Revised Version.

From Gergiev there was a bounding almost frantic energy to the opening Allegro eroico, an unusual marking, and a wonderfully Coplandesque feel to the slow movement’s opening with a fine flute solo from Gareth Davies (indeed both here and in the scherzo the LSO’s superb winds covered themselves in glory). Only in the finale’s explosion of energy did one feel that Prokofiev had run out of inspiration and was guilty of note-spinning.

Sergei Prokofiev in New York, 1918 About the Fifth Symphony, there is very little to say except that it was almost up to the level of inspiration that had informed the Sinfonia concertante, which immediately preceded it. Of course both the orchestra and Gergiev started with the priceless advantage of having this music under their fingers but even so this was a remarkable account. It was quite superbly played; the quality of the strings especially lustrous from start to finish. It was also full of a teeming inner life – seldom does one hear so much of the inner string parts emerge so effortlessly and, above all, supremely lyrical and forward-moving, avoiding the overkill that can mar Gergiev’s performances.

However, the Sixth with which the final concert opened was something of a disappointment. Are there any bleaker works in the symphonic canon? Any brightening of the shadows is definitely through gritted teeth. Prokofiev’s own description of the work is a masterpiece of the disingenuous: “The first movement is agitated, at times lyrical, at times austere; the second movement, Largo, is brighter and more tuneful; the finale, rapid and in a major key, is close in character to my Fifth Symphony, save for the reminiscences of the austere passages in the first movement.” Of course, his clear intention was to sugar the bitter pill as far as the Soviet Authorities were concerned. Written in 1947 this is surely the ultimate music of disillusion, a postscript to the “Great Patriotic War” and the Purges that had preceded it.

Valery GergievInevitably it is not an easy work to bring off but pacing and intensity are crucial. On both counts, this performance failed to make the requisite impact. In the first place Gergiev’s tempo for the opening 6/8 was simply too static for the unsettling effect of the keening muted strings to register fully and the menace of the succeeding ostinato was muted. Rather better was the Largo in which the LSO’s strings were once again gorgeous but with the tempo held back the short notes with which the string cantilena culminates lacked kick. In the finale it was not so much that the tempo was too fast but that Gergiev failed to get his strings to articulate with the kind of knife-edge clarity which gives this music life and avoids it sounding inconsequential. When we reached the aural scream that precedes the juddering sprint to the finish, we need to feel as though we ourselves had lived through The Terror. Although loud enough in climax, this was too decorous by half, loud rather than terrifying.

Happily, after a poised and chaste reading of the Second Violin Concerto from Kavakos with a particularly eloquent slow movement, form was fully regained for the lyrical Seventh Symphony, rightly given with its original quiet ending (according to Rostropovich the composer was insistent that the upbeat alternative ending was in order to secure official acceptability and should be suppressed).

Written for the Children’s Radio Division of Moscow Radio, the Seventh taps into a deep vein of adult nostalgia for normality and the remembrance of a better life. Its unashamed lyricism can – in the wrong hands – verge on the sentimental. Here, with superbly rich string-playing and refulgent brass, Gergiev and the LSO played it straight, avoiding kitsch in the gracious second movement waltz and unleashing a tremendous momentum in the finale. As with the Second and Fifth symphonies, this was a remarkably complete exploration of a great work.

One of the most valuable aspects of a Festival featuring a particular composer is the opportunity to hear a complete sequence of works in close proximity. Inevitably with so much relatively unfamiliar music in just three days there were ups and downs but the truly remarkable aspect of this Prokofiev cycle was that there were four really outstanding performances – the Second, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies and, above all, the Sinfonia concertante – and only one comparative disappointment. The cycle was also notable for a new-found warmth of string sound from the LSO. Gergiev should use a baton more frequently (as he did in the Second Symphony) because it tends to elicit a greater precision of orchestral response without compromising the lyrical flow.

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