Prom 42 – La mort de Cléopâtre

The Consecration of the House – Overture, Op.124
La mort de Cléopâtre
Symphonic Song, Op.57
Scythian Suite, Op.20

Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

You expect the unexpected (negatively and positively speaking!) from Valery Gergiev, and this concert was no exception. Beethoven’s The Consecration of the House is not an overture at every conductor’s fingertips. Whether or not Gergiev has performed it previously, his account showed every sign of familiarity and confidence with what can seem a potpourri of Handelian ’hand me downs’. In truth, Beethoven could no more ’be’ Handel than he could Rossini – and, despite the pointed allusion to the ’Overture’ from the Fireworks Music in the transition to the allegro, the working-out of ideas via a combination of fugal writing and variation process is pure Beethoven. Gergiev attacked it with relish, giving it an impetus that aligned it more closely than usual with the finale of the Ninth Symphony.

Berlioz is being well served at the Proms in his bicentenary, and Gergiev opted for perhaps the most emotionally extreme of all his works – the cantata La mort de Cléopâtre. That it failed to win the Prix de Rome in 1829, yet without a first prize being awarded, says much for the powerful and unsettling impact it must have had on the great and the good of the French Institute. Gergiev captured its searing passion and supplicatory fervour unerringly, and if Olga Borodina was impressive rather than involving (not to mention some odd-sounding French pronunciation), her controlled phrasing in the Meditation section was riveting, as was Gergiev’s underlining of silence as the means of continuity in the fragmented final bars. Not a piece that could – or indeed should – grow old gracefully.

Having recently unveiled the Cello Concerto in London for the first time in living memory, this Proms season’s second Prokofiev novelty followed in the shape of the Symphonic Song from 1933. Shape is perhaps the wrong word when discussing this hybrid of one-movement symphony and free-wheeling rhapsody: a work which, even in the unsettled context of the early 1930s, seems a bizarre attempt at fusing the private and public facets of the Prokofiev’s musical persona. David Gutman’s programme note made a plausible case for hearing it as a three-section arch form, but symmetry and reprise are in short supply as the piece veers between introspection and bombast over a 15-minute span. Orchestration is by turns inspired and turgid, and though Gergiev made a valiant attempt at keeping the music’s conflicting impulses in check, the outcome was no more than the sum of its unlikely parts. An early 1980s’ BBC studio performance under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky resonates in the memory; for the moment, Symphonic Song must go down as a fascinating failure.

If not exactly a masterpiece, the Scythian Suite is certainly an uninhibited product of Prokofiev’s years as an enfant terrible prior to the Russian Revolution. Gergiev’s recent Philips recording was a surprisingly tepid affair, and though the present performance packed a good deal more punch, it was not without flaw. In particular, the whiplash opening and pulverising processional that follows were unaccountably laboured. Yet the ensuing music was effortlessly sensual, Prokofiev suspending harmonic logic over a firm rhythmic profile in much the same way as Stravinsky had done two years before. The evil spirits made their presence felt in a dance both brazen and trenchantly articulated, while ’Night’ brought somnolent mystery in music suggestive of a Scriabinesque hangover. Gergiev found an engaging humour in the ’March of Lolly’, the Rotterdam winds at their most characterful, before the sun’s arrival was greeted with a crescendo akin to petrified orgy.

Not a definitive performance by any means, but a vivid and often insightful one. Gergiev clearly inspires this orchestra, and its sound for the ’March’ from The Love of Three Oranges – which served as an encore – was bold, brazen and convincingly Russian.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Saturday 23 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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