Babi Yar

From the Apocalypse, Op.66
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op.113 (Babi Yar)

Vadim Repin (violin)

Mikhail Petrenko (bass)

Bass voices of the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre

Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 19 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Anatoly Liadov (1855-1914) wrote mostly short pieces, partly due to the difficulties (laziness!) that he incurred in finishing anything. (Otherwise he, rather than Stravinsky, might have written The Firebird.) From the Apocalypse lasts about nine minutes, giving us a minor disturbance followed by a major, undoubtedly powerful disturbance. Yet neither disturbance was particularly memorable.

Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, on the other hand, was unforgettable. In the first few bars, the performance made its astonishing mark as something that required admiring concentration. The orchestra was softly and absolutely clear. This was a breeze among the trees, with the lightest stress on the first beat of each bar, infinitely gentle, but insistent – the force of nature, perhaps. Then, above this susurration, just slightly warm, came the self-assured flow of Vadim Repin’s violin. Orchestra and soloist were both serene, but uneasily so. Like the apparent stillness of a forest floor, activity was omnipresent but unseen.

From Repin music becomes reflective and yet impassioned, without hubbub or histrionics. There is energy and bite – present and virile, but for the most part held judiciously in reserve until the occasion demands. Alec Guinness defined effective acting as the art of saying and doing the least. I would echo this for Repin. His vigour in the first movement – which proceeded at a steady pace and enabled Repin to take passages of hair-raising difficulty surely and effectively, with no need to rush the gates merely for the sake of virtuosity – his all-pervading sadness in the second, no less deep and affecting for being gentle (if marred by applause that started before the music had finished!), and his rasping, leaping energy in the finale: all will stay with me far longer than the cavorting of many hyperactive soloists.

Gergiev realised a narrative, one that lay in the notes – a story that was exclusively aural, which moved on from phrase to phrase, from instrument to instrument. Transition passages were part of the story, often leading to golden outbursts from brass and massed strings, or to soaring passages from the violins. Gergiev was, too, Repin’s perfect partner: a benchmark partnership of soloist, conductor and orchestra. Amazingly, especially considering the venue, Gergiev cajoled the orchestra into accompanying ever more quietly, yet still effectively, during important passages where the soloist should be heard. The orchestra’s clarity at these points was exemplary, as well as its passion – a model of how clarity of performance is possible in the Royal Albert Hall.

For the Shostakovich symphony – memorialising the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in 1941, Sergey Alexashkin was indisposed. Mikhail Petrenko took his place. His voice is an amazing instrument – deep, rich-toned, yet capable of lighter delivery and lighter tones. It can soar and swoop; it can descend into gravity and deeply serious commitment. This was a most apt voice for Shostakovich’s setting of Yevtushenko’s verses – responding as much to the sardonic levity of ‘Humour’ and ‘Careers’ as to the sepulchral distress of ‘Babi Yar’ and ‘Fears’. (I look forward to hearing Petrenko in Berio’s “Stanze” one day.)

Gergiev was in dark and monumental mood – vigorous but rather undifferentiated. The monotone of his approach sent me towards sleep. Unlike with Kyril Kondrashin, whose official recording (there was once a ‘pirate’ release of the controversial first performance in circulation) I played three times to revive acquaintance with this astonishing work; that kept me on the edge of my seat.

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