Der fliegende Holländer – Overture
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Fred Kirshnit
Reviewed: 26 February, 2016
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Those of us old enough to remember Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) will recall an added dimension to his concerts, a special frisson of excitement before he even started to conduct. Klemperer was bipolar and one was never sure whether he would produce a great performance or a dull one. Not commenting on the psychopathology of Valery Gergiev, New Yorkers are aware that he can deliver astounding readings but is also responsible for some pedestrian evenings. Sometimes this maestro can thrill with the first Act at the Met and then follow with sloppy and ponderous later scenes.
For years there have been protesters outside Carnegie Hall whenever the Vienna Philharmonic came to town. These ardent people were objecting to the absence of women in the ensemble without, it seems, having any grasp of the tradition which gives this Orchestra its unique, familial sound. However, now the signs read of Gergiev the accused warmonger and his siding with Mr. Putin on bellicose matters within their slice of the globe. Plus ça change…
Of course he went in another direction, but Richard Wagner was a master of the Overture as the set-pieces that introduce both Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman bear witness. This performance of the latter was very exciting but a bit haphazard in execution, the horns fluctuating in the midst of the swirling activity for an occasional lapse of intonation. However the overall sound carried the evening and left this listener impressed.
Then Gergiev led a superb version of one of his signature pieces. He emphasized La mer’s audacious modernism, making each transition from whole tone to whole tone shivering in its intensity. The VPO played about as close to flawlessly as one could imagine: truly superb music-making.
Was the work after intermission Russian or French? Gergiev made a strong case for both in this highly colorful rendition. Highlights included the alto saxophone of ‘The Old Castle’, a vignette so memorable in its ghostly, otherworldly timbre that the player elongated the final note much longer than I have experienced, a shimmering piece of ectoplasm that refused to leave the stage. Daring contrasts in dynamics were also ear-catching in the ‘Baba-Yaga’ section, although its coherence fell apart and morphed unfortunately into the ‘Great Gate’ conclusion before order was restored. The irony of Gergiev ending with this music (Kiev is, of course, Ukrainian and remains a masterful symbol of this people’s solid determination for independence) was positively delicious
As encores, the VPO offered Johann Strauss II’s Vergnuegungszug (Pleasure Train, the Opus 281 Polka) and Kaiserwalzer (Opus 437).