Prom 50: 28th August 2001 – Kirov Orchestra

Photograph of Valery Gergiev

Prelude to Act III – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Pelleas und Melisande
Prometheus, Poem of Fire
Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music – Die Walküre

Alexander Toradze (piano)
Vladimir Vaneev (baritone)
Crouch End Festival Chorus

Kirov Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev

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Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gergiev and the Kirov had a lot to prove at this concert. Whether it was the debacle that characterised the company’s recent Covent Garden Verdi residency, or the fact that the dreaded Schoenberg was on the programme, the Hall was in no way full, with even the stalls notable for a regular pattern of empty seats. And yet, from the very opening bars of the sombre prelude to the third act of Die Meistersinger, Gergiev was able to assure us that his orchestra, at least, was up to the task, and unruffled about re-entering the lion’s den of London’s critics.

Interestingly, Gergiev used a baton throughout most of the concert. When he opted to let his right hand be free, he transferred the baton to his left hand (pointing up his sleeve or into the audience) so it was always easy to be transferred back. I’m not really sure how much a baton helps in Gergiev’s case, but I have the impression that he uses it when either the orchestra he is conducting, or the work, is less than familiar.

Certainly, I cannot imagine that Schoenberg’s epic, early (1903) and emphatically late-Romantic tone poem, Pelleas und Melisande, is in the Kirov’s regular repertoire (especially as it isn’t in any other orchestra’s normal repertoire!), but the players brought to it the sort of red-blooded operatic intensity as you would expect from them in their home territory of the Russian operatic canon.

Gergiev was urgent – in some instances even hasty, as he had a habit of speeding to a climax – and the performance was faster than the 41 minutes listed in the prospectus (37 – Music Editor); but he made the music tell the story more than I have heard before. Above the secure, silky string base, the wind solos, ripe and individual with the principal trumpet particularly fruity in typical Russian vein, were able to soar as the tragic tale of Melisande’s effect on two brothers – Golaud, who marries Melisande, and Pelleas – unfolded. Perhaps best known from Debussy’s opera, Schoenberg’s dark and brooding score (violins are silent until after figure 4) follows Maeterlinck’s action to a climax of the lover’s music brutally interrupted by Golaud’s murder of his brother.The music then gradually dies away, accompanying Melisande’s funeral (she dies in childbirth) and also Golaud’s remorse. As early as 1920 Berg wrote that the work could be regarded as a one-movement symphony in D minor, but here Gergiev’s overtly dramatic approach was evidently much closer to Schoenberg’s own statement (as late as 1949) which detailed the bits of Maeterlinck that had inspired the music.

After the interval, Alexander Toradze and the Crouch End Festival Chorus joined Gergiev for, literally, a colourful performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus, Poem of Fire, as an attempt was made to introduce colour washes to the music. Scriabin had scored the work for Alexander Moser’s ’Clavier à lumières’ and at least the simple green (with vaguely geometric design), red, yellow or the final blue washes burnishing the organ sides were more effective than the Barbican’s attempts a couple of years ago with the Russian National Orchestra. Much more difficult to comprehend than the Schoenberg (why isn’t Scriabin the box office turn-off that Schoenberg so emphatically is?), Gergiev was characteristically fleet-footed with Toradze a sympathetic soloist in the rather disconnected piano part.Amidst the massive orchestral climax the Crouch End Festival Chorus’s wordless contribution was all-but lost.

Not so Vladimir Vaneev’s sweet assumption of Wotan’s farewell to his eldest Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, on top of a mountain in the closing scene of Die Walküre which ended the published programme. Once again Gergiev was an urgent accompanist – stepping down from the podium and almost into the ranks of strings to urge his players on. After the lighting effects in the Scriabin it was a shame that no-one had thought of providing the Chorus with individual cigarette lighters which they could have lit and held high at Wotan’s importuning of Loge for magical fire to protect Brünnhilde.

For an encore Gergiev returned to the opening of that act of Die Walküre for a spirited account of that most famous of Wagner’s operatic off-cuts, ’The Ride of the Valkyries’. I don’t think David Harman’s programmatic glosses about past performances actually counts encores, but if it did, I would be able to confidently attest that this was the 171st-performance of ’The Ride of the Valkyries’ at the Proms (not a bad roll-call in 107 seasons!), and, surely, one of the most exciting.

This was one of Gergiev’s best Proms appearances; one hopes it will do much to reduce the harm of the recent Verdi season.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Tuesday, 4 September, at 2 o’clock

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