LSO/Gergiev in New York – Prokofiev

Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.44
Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat, Op.53
Symphony No.4 in C, Op.112

Alexei Volodin (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 29 March, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Valery Gergiev“Russian Dreams: The music of Sergei Prokofiev” is the centerpiece of this season’s Great Performers at Lincoln Center. The nine-part series examining the life and work of the Prokofiev opened last November with Valery Gergiev leading the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater in an array of the composer’s music for opera, ballet and film. Gergiev now returned, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra, to survey the complete Prokofiev symphonies, including both versions of the Fourth. The four-concert cycle, which marks the first New York appearances of Gergiev with the LSO since he succeeded Sir Colin Davis as Principal Conductor in January of 2007, also features performances of four concertos highlighting Russian soloists – the pianists Alexei Volodin and Vladimir Feltsman, and the violinist Vadim Repin.

This concert, the third in this Gergiev/LSO series in Avery Fisher Hall, opened with an electrifying account of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, a symphonic reworking of the music originally written for his opera “The Fiery Angel”, a work which he failed to get performed during his lifetime. Set in sixteenth-century Germany, the opera tells the story of Renata, a strange and beautiful young woman possessed by evil spirits and torn between her love for a mortal, the knight-errant Ruprecht, and her passion for Madiel, the “fiery angel”. Prokofiev’s brashly modernist score calls for a huge orchestra, heavy on brass, with a large percussion section and two harps: he forces of the LSO took up all of Avery Fisher Hall’s stage.

In the attention-grabbing first movement (the principal theme is Renata’s description of Madiel), with its clashing dissonance, huge orchestral chords and tolling bells, Gergiev and the LSO musicians effectively set a mood of turmoil and impending doom. The hymn-like music of the second movement Andante came off particularly well, with the two harps effectively conveying the ethereal spirit of the opera’s religious scenes, and the brooding central section contrasting with the gossamer-like textures of the more fragile sections. The LSO strings were magnificent in the spine-chilling third movement depicting Renata’s hysteria. Gergiev found genuine pathos in the finale and built up to an appropriately woeful and emphatic culmination.

Alexei Volodin. ©Photo@ndreaAlexei Volodin was the soloist in Piano Concerto No.4, written for the left-hand, and calling for modest orchestral forces. Paul Wittgenstein commissioned the work from Prokofiev, but when the Austrian pianist received the score, he sent the composer a terse note: “Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note of it and I will not play it”. Volodin delivered an affecting performance of the appealing and highly original work. He dispatched the rapid and fiery passages of the opening Vivace with great energy and flair, but was most effective in the lyrical Andante, which he delivered with extraordinary finesse. Throughout, Gergiev and the LSO provided excellent support. An ardent ovation brought Volodin back for an encore: a dazzling rendition of the finale of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7, played with tremendous speed and energy.

The Revised Version of Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony was the final work on the planned program. In the way that he drew on material from his opera “The Fiery Angel” for Symphony No.3, Prokofiev adapted parts of his ballet score for The Prodigal Son to produce his Symphony No.4. The revised (1947) version, now more frequently performed than the original from 1930, is considerably longer and the orchestration much expanded. Prokofiev added so much material that he assigned to it a new opus number.

Gergiev gave it a forceful and committed reading. The first movement was full of rhythmic verve, and the Andante appropriately serene. The orchestra’s wonderfully crisp and incisive playing in the third movement was followed by a thrillingly exuberant finale, marked by gem-like virtuoso moments from the LSO’s excellent brass.

The eventful afternoon ended with another encore: a handsomely delivered performance of a movement from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music.

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