Prom 48: Gergiev in Symphonic Triumph – At Last!

Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

Alexander Toradze (piano)

Kirov Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Kirov Orchestra’s weekend Proms residency ended with this apposite coupling of works from the two leading Soviet composers: a concerto written in the heyday of Prokofiev’s émigré years, and a Shostakovich symphony written when the ’years of terror’ were rapidly gathering momentum.

Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto has long been his most popular, and this performance was a welcome alternative to the Francophone brilliance familiar from many present-day exponents. Alexander Toradze can certainly play to the Russian virtuoso tradition, witness the pounding motoric feel of the toccata-like passages, but there was no lack of poetry at the return of the clarinet theme midway through the opening movement, or the evocative dreamscape that comprises the fourth variation in the second. The main theme of the ’Finale’ was given richly expressive treatment that pointed up the connection with Rachmaninov almost too clearly, while the C major brilliance of the close was duly scintillating. One or two miscues in passing aside, soloist and conductor anticipated each other’s moves with evident assurance.

Long recognised as the leading conductor of Russian opera in theworld today, Valery Gergiev has in the past been efficient but lacklustre on the concert platform. So it is worth stating right away that this account of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was not only the best non-operatic performance your reviewer has heard from him, but one of the most cohesive and penetrating interpretations of this recklessly magnificent symphony fromany source.

At 61 minutes, Gergiev’s performance was closer to the driving intensity of Kondrashin rather than the oblique searching of Rozhdestvensky. Yet there was no doubting its individuality from the way in which the first movement’s highly-contrasted themes were given room to breathe, with a gradual build-up of momentum towards the searing string fugato and brutal ensuing climax – unflinchingly delivered – which draw together the musical motion with the inevitability of a centrifugal force. The second movement emerged as a swift, tensely-sprung intermezzo – with little repose in the wistful second theme and an agitation in the central string polyphony which ensured no relaxation before the ’Finale’.

Opening with a wonderfully deadpan funeral march, Gergiev demonstrated his understanding of the seemingly episodicstructure by pacing the ’Allegro’ section so that its minimalist tendencies were pertinently brought out. The barbed humour of the divertissement gave wind and brass principals the chance to shine, and if Gergiev marginally overdid the rhetoric going into the final peroration, its desperate defiance and the implacable defeat of the long, subdued coda were tangibly evoked.

That a virtually full Albert Hall maintained concentration not only through this bleak closing expanse but for almost a minute after the music had ceased underlines the impact this work can and should have in performance. 66 years since its completion and 41 years after its premiere, Shostakovich Four remains a touchstone of interpretative possibilities, through which Gergiev fashioned a way forward such as consolidated the symphony’s relevance for a later, post-Soviet generation.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Wednesday, 28 August, at 2 o’clock

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