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PROMS 2002

PROMS 47 and 48: Sofia Gubaidulina, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Orchestra of the Kirov Opera – Valery Gergiev, Natalia Korneva (soprano), Viktor Lutsyuk (tenor), Fyodor Mozhaev (baritone), Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass), St. Petersburg Chamber Chorus, Chorus of the Kirov Opera, Alexander Toradze (piano), RAH, 25th August (CT).


These two concerts marked the culmination of a stamina-sapping weekend for Gergiev’s St. Petersburg forces after an epic Boris Godunov the previous night. A complete afternoon concert dedicated to the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St. John by Sofia Gubaidulina amounted to well over two and a half hours of music, yet with the prospect of Shostakovich’s shattering Fourth Symphony to come in the evening, the Kirov seemed to show few, if any, signs of tiring.

Gubaidulina’s mammoth St. John was written in two parts, the Passion to a commission from the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart to celebrate the 250th anniversary of J. S. Bach in September 2000, with the second part, St. John Easter, following two years later at the request of North German Radio. The response to such a commission must have been daunting yet I can think of few composers who are capable of rising to the challenge as individually and uncompromisingly as Gubaidulina. In the Passion we are plunged immediately into her intensely Russian, deeply Orthodox sound-world, with wonderfully sonorous sounds emanating from the chorus and in particular amongst the soloists from bass Gennady Bezzubenkov, whose part acts as a narrative thread guiding us through the story. The Prommers loved him and I had the distinct impression that he loved the Prommers as he later lapped up the applause. Baritone Fyodor Mozhaev was equally rich although it was a shame that there were frequent passages where the soloists were simply inaudible over the orchestra and chorus. Gergiev steered his musicians through the awesome canvas with mesmerising authority, from climaxes of cataclysmic power to moments of sheer beauty, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the ingenuity and at times great delicacy of Gubaidulina’s scoring.

After the darkly brooding power of St. John Passion, St. John Easter comes as something of a relief, being deliberately lighter in its language and celebratory in tone. At a little under one hour the latter work is considerable shorter than the Passion although of the two it is the Passion that leaves the more lasting impression. The sounds once again are unmistakeably Russian, the joyous Easter Hymn of the opening sung with great verve by the chorus and returning to close the work in a magnificent paean of praise. It is difficult to imagine this music receiving more intensely felt or characterful performances than these and the relatively small but hugely appreciative audience clearly felt the same way given the cheers as the composer took the stage at the end.

The evening concert got off to a flying start with a sparkling performance of Prokofiev’s familiar Third Piano Concerto from a soloist who is possibly known more for his physical presence than his profound delicacy. Yet it was the lyrical, dream like sequences of the opening and central movements that I found most affecting here, shaped with the utmost sensitivity by both soloist and a highly responsive and supportive conductor and orchestra. True, the more percussive passages had Toradze literally leaping off his stool, no mean achievement for a man of his stature and I am sure that as a result some of the more percussive sounds at the front of the arena would not just have come from the piano. Yet the showmanship that was there in abundance was rendered more than acceptable by an equally abundant display of musicianship.

Following in the wake of this, I have to confess to a degree of disappointment at the opening of the Shostakovich. The initial statement of the march did not quite terrify as I hoped it would but that was soon to change as Gergiev wound the tension up with vice like precision. The vicious string fugue leading into the climactic fulcrum of the first movement was played with tornado like ferocity, simply edge of the seat stuff, the climax itself at last crushing in its power. It was the woodwind section that stole the show in the central Moderato con moto, quite magical at times with the eerie ticking of the clock at the close of the movement realised with telling atmosphere. Gergiev’s masterful pacing of the final Largo-Allegro coupled with an unfailing ability to bring to the surface the irony of Shostakovich’s message left a lingering impression long after the performance, once again coupled with unfailingly fine playing from individual members of the orchestra (the principal trombonist was rightly cheered for his contribution). Yet overall, it was the closing paragraphs of the symphony that will live with me in this performance for a long time to come, the sense of desolation and emptiness utterly chilling as the strings died away to silence. The extension of that silence in the audience at the close, by a margin the longest I have encountered for some time, said much more than any of the comments of admiration I overheard as I walked out of the hall.

Christopher Thomas.


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