Borodin Polovtsian Dances; Stravinsky Suite from The Firebird; Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade Gergiev/Philharmonia, RFH, 10 May 2000.
The Philharmonia/Kirov Festival, directed by Valery Gergiev, celebrates the glittering legacy of the opera and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The three works in this concert formed part of the 'Ballet Russe' season which he presented in Paris from 1909, all based on eastern folklore.
From the beginning, the colourful orchestration of these exotic pieces was captured brilliantly by the Philharmonia. Gergiev emphasised their elemental, barbaric rhythms, commanding military precision and favouring extremes of dynamic contrast and tempo - too extreme at the start of the Polovtsian Dances, where the woodwind soloists were pushed to keep up. He revelled in the 'eastern' harmonies and melodies, visibly encouraging, for example, the cellos to milk the flattened sixths in the captivating melody (popularised in Kismet) in the 'Dances'.
After an uninspiring start, the eerie world of The Firebird was perfectly portrayed by the Philharmonia's glassy, shimmering strings - the mysterious, dreamy bassoon doubling the strings and lazy, meandering flute solos. Gergiev maintained the momentum and rhythmic precision perfectly throughout the 'Infernal Dance', and the build-up to the final climax was truly exciting.
In Scheherazade, the Philharmonia strings were lush, but perhaps lacked the richness of traditional Russian string sonority. Strident brass and agile muted trumpets at the start were impressive and the slow ending magical. The principals performed with great sensitivity, if not with quite sufficient passion. This was a spellbinding performance, with Gergiev evidently in control and making instinctive use of rubato, almost as if he were improvising. The Gergiev/Philharmonia partnership is a success - certainly in this repertoire. Gergiev obviously knows how to bring the best out of the orchestra, especially when it comes to building tension, and the orchestra responded to him wholeheartedly.
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