Philharmonia/Gergiev – 22 April

Overture on Three Russian Themes
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Alex Slobodyanik (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 22 April, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

You decide to perform a symphony that lasts about 75 minutes, and the catering staff expects an interval to take place. So, what do you play in part one? Paganini Rhapsody? That’s not quite long enough. OK, let’s throw in several minutes of Balakirev, too. A ’popular’ first half will sugar the pill for what follows.

So we began with three folk songs. The middle one is the ear-catcher. Tchaikovsky used it in his Fourth Symphony. Balakirev’s linking passages are inconsequential and mercifully short. The piece is a valiant essay in writing straightforward, recognisable ’Russian’ music, following the lead of Glinka.

The Rhapsody has a tune too – in variation 18. It’s quite a long time to wait – especially if you are fuming or exasperated. The Philharmonia is a superb orchestra – highly professional, capable of reaching great heights. Equally clearly, Gergiev is not the Philharmonia’s man. His vision of the piece is dull – and he inflicted it on the orchestra. The playing was obedient, subdued, unrhythmic and lifeless. Alex Slobodyanik was not much help either. His playing was competent but uninspired. He put over variation 18 well enough – and when the audience’s turn to perform came, bravos rang out all around.

I must confess I was dreading the second half. Shostakovich 7 contains none of the world’s greatest music – and pales beside, say, any three Haydn symphonies. It’s called the ’Leningrad’. People assume that the title refers to the Nazi invasion. Nothing of the sort. According to Shostakovich (in “Testimony”) it’s a ’tombstone’ to commemorate everyone who was “shot, tortured or starved to death … before the war with Hitler began. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed.”

Symphonies are not Gergiev’s forte. Sustained musical argument, shape, and changes in tonal colour tend to pass him by. He recognises a piece of bombast when he sees it, though. In between climaxes, life is pretty turgid and dull. He’s an Uncle Vanya of our times.

However, the march of the first movement was a party piece – a vibrant celebration of the banal. The ppp opening was charged and atmospheric, the grasp of structure certain and sure, the climax loud and almost terrifying. At last the Philharmonia had a chance to display its poise, control and bite … its expertise. For several minutes I sat on the edge of my seat. This sort of playing could make the interminable Leningrad bearable. Alas, Gergiev took control again … and these sonic wonders vanished. Turgidity and bombast ruled.

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