Jeu de cartes
Symphony of Psalms
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 24 April, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
This latest program in the three-week series “The Russian Stravinsky: A Philharmonic Festival” was here played for the second time. Written in 1930 on a commission instigated by Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th-anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, “Symphony of Psalms” is one of hallmarks of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. Its three movements set verses from Psalms 39, 40 and 150 in the Vulgate versions sung in Latin. Having recently rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church, Stravinsky sought to give voice to the renewal of his faith by imbuing the work with an ancient ambience through the use of modal scales, Gregorian chant, and a double fugue in the second movement.
Although this was a repeat performance, “Symphony of Psalms” seemed somewhat tentative, its stark religious awe and spiritual devotion rather uninspiring. Despite a valiant effort, the Mariinsky Theater Chorus (delayed arriving in New York as a consequence of recent flight problems) seemed slightly out of focus at times. Missing from this rather dry, sometimes perfunctory performance was the medieval mysterium that should hover over the work. Choral forces did not project well enough in the Gregorian chant-like third movement, sometimes buried under even this reduced orchestra (no violins, violas or clarinets). More incisive articulation in staccato passages might have had a mimetic effect upon the singers. As a result the performance for the most part seemed lackluster.
Jeu de cartes (Card Game) opened the concert. This fascinating 20-minute ballet, written in 1936, was originally choreographed by a young George Balanchine and first performed at the old Metropolitan Opera House under the composer’s direction. Stravinsky claims that he first thought of a card-game scenario while riding in a Paris taxi. He was so delighted with having thought up this novel idea that he invited the cab driver to have a drink with him. Although not much of a poker player (favoring Chinese checkers), Stravinsky referred to the three sections as “deals”. After a ceremonious introduction, which functions as a ritornello that introduces each “deal”, various cards are introduced, particularly the infamous Joker, whose dance bespeaks his pompous character. A march begins the second section in which a series of solo variations and a ‘Pas de quatre’ for four queens are the central attractions. In the last movement, spades and hearts engage in combat, with some humorous results. Stravinsky has some fun with the music of other composers, such as Ravel and Rossini, a fragment from the latter’s overture to “The Barber of Seville” being particularly recognizable.
Valery Gergiev and the Philharmonic had some difficulty with the extremely complex and continuous metric shifts, causing them to concentrate on precision at the expense of conveying the pronounced humor that permeates this delightful score. But the Joker’s dance sparkled and the waltz-coda was wistfully engaging. By the third “deal” both orchestra and conductor seemed to have caught the music’s raucous character. The drone-like treatment of the ritornello theme at the end was marvelously droll.
Unreservedly best was the performance of The Firebird. Hearing the entire work instead of the more familiar suites gives a much better perspective on what this remarkable work is like as a theater piece. Stravinsky was very fortunate to have come to the attention of Diaghilev so early in his career. Having orchestrated Chopin’s music for the highly successful Ballets Russes performance of Les Sylphides in 1909, Stravinsky was asked to compose the music for the Firebird by the famous Russian impresario after his approaches to Anatoly Liadov and Nikolai Tcherepnin did not work out.
The Philharmonic gave all it had for Gergiev who directed an energetic, exciting and sometimes thrilling performance. Any cautiousness or concern over technical difficulties that tainted the previous works was completely absent here. The myriad coloristic effects were rendered stunningly; dance music fluttered and flickered as if illuminated with a vibrant glow; the slightest inflection embellished strings’ lyrical themes; and the entire ensemble played with unencumbered enthusiasm. Gergiev achieved not only immense power and haunting sonorities but clarity of line and inner-voice balancing that was truly masterful.