Kirov Orchestra/Gergiev – 9 November

The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op.40
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Alex Slobodyanik (piano)

Kirov Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 9 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

An enthusiastic capacity audience, a queue for returns, even a free programme! All stops pulled out for this concert. It may seem churlish to report that the audience was clearly going to have awonderful time whatever the musical content – but how much of its response was really due to the music and how much to the perceived glamour and mystery of Valery Gergiev is open to question. It goes without saying that the Kirov Orchestra can obviously play and play very well – although it has limitations: the strings have a very weedy tone compared to the forceful wind section and blaring brass. A reflection of a conductor who shows little concern for balance, subtlety and detail.

By far the most successful work was The Isle of the Dead– Gergiev caught the rather relentless, doleful tread of this strange but remarkable piece very well. The constant repetition of the five-note figure that represents the mythical ferryman rowing his passengers across the river that divides life from death was doom-laden, dark and heavy. The orchestra revelled in the sombre colours and the craggy climax worked particularly well.

After that, however, it was a long journey downhill. The concert had started fifteen minutes late due, we were told, to two piano strings braking at 7.15! Though this unfortunate fault had obviously being rectified, the tuner it seems had no time to re-tune the instrument. It sounded totally wretched, the brighter than normal pitch being very much at odds with the dark-sounding orchestra, which made for an uncomfortable thirty minutes. AlexSlobodyanik gave an anonymous if accomplished account. The whole point of this concerto, far more than Rachmaninov’s other concertos, is that the solo part is more a concertante role – some of the time subservient to what is going on in the orchestra. It appeared that no rehearsal time had been spent on such matters. Loud and fast are the only possible words that can fittingly describe this performance.

Very loud and very fast might be the words to describe the performance of the Second Symphony. The overt emotionalism of this piece needs to be held in check if it is to be shownas the masterpiece it is. Gergiev portrayed it as an epic monstrosity. He was baton-less, relying on fluttering fingers. The orchestra is primed enough to ignore most of this – yet there was scarcely anything below mezzo-forte! From a technical point of view, aside from an unfortunate honking cor anglais atone point, there was little to criticise in the playing; indeed one might express admiration that the orchestra was able to respond to its conductor’s gestures and eccentric gear changes that made a nonsense of Rachmaninov’s phrasing.

The ’Scherzo’ was alarmingly fast – it is certainly meant to be vigorous, ostinati driving the music along. The orchestration in this movement is of breath-taking virtuosity, but most of the composer’s craftsmanship was thrown out of the window in a vulgar display of showmanship. The heart-stopping ’Adagio’ at least gave some respite from the frantic activity – the long, beautiful clarinet solo was not as memorable as I have heard elsewhere – the strident tone of the clarinet rather going against the melodic warmth. The ’Finale’ returned to ’loud and fast’. I can only express surprise that the brass section had any lip left at the end – the final race to the finish resulted in the predictable audience response followed by a ’loud and fast’ Wagner encore.

A very depressing evening of glitz and glam.

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