Balakirev orch. Lyapunov
In the Steppes of Central Asia
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op.35
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 8 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Effectively playing their new CD – all bar Pictures (which Gergiev did earlier with the Vienna Philharmonic) – the Kirov Orchestra and head honcho Valery Gergiev rode into town to pulverise the locals. Play it loud, play it fast – it’s a good trick if you want cheers and people to leap to their feet. Not that’s it’s always fast and loud. Sometimes it’s just tediously slower. No doubting the Orchestra was in good shape – played very well actually with plenty of vibrancy, commitment and solo artistry.
Concert off to a lively start with Balakirev’s finger-breaking piano piece. Lyapunov’s orchestration not great and Gergiev made it seem less good by over-projecting the brass and percussion and dragging the slow middle section. There’s a better version by Alfredo Casella (checked-out Ormandy’s recording when I got home) and, I believe, another Russian choice, by Taneyev.
To Scheherazde. The new recording, whatever or not its artistic merits, is sabotaged by a ridiculously reverberant acoustic. Not the case with the Barbican. Sergei Levitin’s violin solos were beautifully played – winsome and seductive or just plain mannered, depending on your point of view. The performance as a whole was boring. You know what Gergiev’s going to do – it’ll be at breakneck speed or milked to death; it’ll be brass-dominated; the cymbal clashes will recall the bandstand; dynamics will be man-handled. Here were excellent musicians responding marionette-like to their sweat-stained master as he put on a show, in every sense. It’s so unconvincing.
This generous and popular programme continued with Borodin. It sounded too slow, which the stopwatch denied. Everything took too long to arrive. Pictures fared better. Gergiev does have some interesting ideas about this work, and while these tend to be countered by other ploys that seem no more than ’doing’ something for the sake of it, he does bring some darkness and ’spook’ to leaven Ravel’s superb if too intelligent scoring of the piano original. ’The Great Gate of Kiev’ romped home aggressively. Instead of offering some much-needed balm to the ear, Gergiev then rampaged through ’The Dance of the Tumblers’ (from Rimsky’s Snow Maiden) – it was too fast. His Orchestra might be able to play at this speed but the music got lost in the exhibitionism. I’ve nothing against the tambourine but once you’ve heard it struck hard throughout most of the evening, the novelty wears thin very early, in Islamey actually! How shrewd of Gergiev to then offer another razzle-dazzle encore, tambourine and cymbal dominating – ’Russian Dance’ from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The circus had really arrived – Gergiev thought it a jolly jape to not conduct and folded his arms – and the crowd loved it.
A concert deluged in mannerism, noise and superficiality. ’Less is more’ doesn’t translate into Kirovian.