St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain [1867 version]
Mlada – Act Three
The Rite of Spring

Olga Savona (mezzo-soprano)
Avgust Amonov (tenor)
Apollo Voices

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 16 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Not everyone can see the point of Valery Gergiev, certainly not those who equate great music-making with maximal textual fidelity or textural elucidation. Sviatoslav Richter for one was mystified by the cult of the mangy-looking maestro. And yet, caught on the right night, Gergiev can be the most electrifying of present-day conductors. His recent Prokofiev cycle with the LSO was lackadaisical and inspirational by turns, but tonight’s unusually coherent programme worked splendidly as well as attracting a capacity crowd. The BBC Symphony first met Gergiev for a TV programme about Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony aired in 2002. It’s an unlikely combination, which nonetheless strikes sparks. Rarely can these players have made such a big, butch sonority.

Conducting with a discarded toothpick and a shimmering left hand, Gergiev chose the Mussorgsky in its original form rather than in the more conventional Rimsky-Korsakov version. The decision made sense too given that the portion of Mlada on offer also looked forward rather than back. Act Three comprises a series of tableaux that evoke Rimsky-Korsakov’s customary enchanted magical world, far removed from the realities of the society in which he lived (and of which, unlike Tchaikovsky, he heartily disapproved). Its eponymous heroine, murdered by a rival in love before the opera-ballet begins, appears only as a ghost enacted by a dancer. There was no trace of her here of course but I also had trouble locating some of the audible incidents detailed in David Nice’s note. Unable to do much to disguise the score’s lack of melodic interest or developmental thrust, Gergiev ensured that the orchestra paid heed to its vibrant colour (three harps and piquant extra woodwind). Static as it was, the music did seem like a stylistic bridge between the Romantics (Berlioz and especially Wagner) and the world of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. I suspect many listeners had not revisited Mlada since Michael Tilson Thomas and his LSO forces revived it in 1989. It’s scarcely repertoire fare over here, but the Mariinsky Theatre having included the work in this year’s White Nights Festival Gergiev had come prepared. Sadly Avgust Amonov was rather strained and gritty as Yaromir.

The Rite too is a Gergiev staple, though his darkly visceral conception of the piece is worlds away from the sort of performance these players are used to delivering for Pierre Boulez and like-minded conductors. For good or ill this was Richard Taruskin’s Stravinsky not Robert Craft’s, full of the thrills and spills of the barbaric East and retaining – or so one was made to feel in this context – the coarser grain of the Mussorgsky and the opulent richness of Rimsky-Korsakov. Apart from Gergiev’s romantic shaping of the opening and several mysterious theatrical pauses elsewhere, this was as racy and rasping a performance as one might have expected. Only the closing stages disappointed. While the BBC Symphony did not come unstuck in the tricky ‘Danse Sacrale’, it did all sound rather cautious, more a matter of soggy rhythmic definition than insufficient speed. Gergiev was much more himself at the very end, outrageously distending Stravinsky’s closing gestures into a denouement of his own devising.

Such red-blooded music-making did not escape the attention of the lighting boys who gave us a lurid mauve for Mlada and shocking pink for Stravinsky. Although the concert was being recorded for television, the arena’s fabled fountain remained in situ thanks presumably to the use of a camera suspended on a crane, highly intrusive from other parts of the hall no doubt. The enthusiastic audience deprived of any opportunity to applaud between Parts One and Two of The Rite, proved surprisingly well behaved in near-tropical conditions.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 26 August at 2.30 p.m.
  • To be shown on BBC1 at 10.35 p.m. on Thursday 2 September
  • BBC Proms 2004

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