This ‘sell-out’ all Russian programme opened with a pop classic: Mily
Alexeyevich Balakirev’s Overture on Three Russian Themes. Whilst
this musical blini was conducted with great bravura there was something
disappointingly formulaic and bland about it; Tchaikovsky incorporated
one of the themes into the finale of his Fourth symphony with far greater
success and invention.
If that had been a disappointment, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme
of Paganini was a revelation: from the hypnotic opening bars, Alex
Slobodyanik held you in his hands spellbound from then on. His playing
shifted gear in tone, colour, mood and intensity for each the 24 variations,
making him sound like 24 different pianists, so extraordinarily versatile
was his subtle and flexible playing. The celebrated hyper-romantic variation
18 was the most moving part of this performance, with Gergiev coaxing
forth a deeply expressive string tone to melt with the soloist’s impassioned
playing. Throughout the more lyrical passages, Gergiev got the violins
to play with a hushed, shimmering tone which I’ve never heard from this
orchestra before. While Rachmaninov uses huge resources, Gergiev kept
his large orchestra perfectly in balance with the soloist, never submerging
him, and producing playing that was rhythmically adroit and perfectly
judged: a mesmerising and memorable performance.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (‘Leningrad’) opens with ‘War’
(allegretto) and Gergiev conducted it with a ferocious energy,
and an inexorable forward thrusting momentum. The brooding blanket of
deep strings immediately sets the scene of this dark score, and Gergiev
gave great weight and attention to the cellos’ and double basses here,
and indeed throughout the symphony, which heightened the drama and poignancy
of this work commemorating the heroism of the people of Leningrad and
their resistance to the two year siege of their city by the Germans
in WW11 .
The razor sharp and plangent solo violin of Christopher
Warren-Green led straight into the famous side drum taps. Here Gergiev
slowly and subtly built up the sinister march rhythms, knowing exactly
how to pace this menacing music. The climax was overwhelming, with the
percussion playing with a nerve shattering violence, brilliantly conjuring
up, in Shostakovich’s own words: "those gloomy, menacing Leningrad
nights, in the thunder of exploding bombs and the glow of fires."
This ‘gloomy’ and ‘menacing’ movement ended on a witty
note, with a parody of the major side-drum tapping theme played by piano
with a jazz syncopation, and a muted trumpet, perfectly and stylishly
With Memories (Moderato pocco allegretto)
– described by the composer as "a lyrical scherzo, recording
happy times and events" - the conductor got the ‘cellos to
play with great warmth, interjected with a beautifully expressive oboe
in the second subject which sounded strikingly Mahlerian. The sudden
bursts of brass and percussion came in with great impact and precision,
as if to disrupt the ‘memories’ symbolised by the dancing strings, and
eventually resolved this movement with playing of a hushed solemnity.
In My native field Gergiev’s conducting became
even more expressive as he seemed to dig with his hands into the violins,
securing playing that took on a deliberately acidic tone, possessing
a strident and mordant intensity, punctuated by the unnerving horn entries.
Victory (allegro non troppo) opened with soft rumbling
timpani atmospherically delivered by Andrew Smith and accompanied by
gentle, sedate strings. The mood soon changed with brass, percussion
and woodwind taking on a threatening, metallic sound. Here Gergiev’s
conducting took on an even greater urgency and energy, building the
first climax perfectly, the orchestra surpassing themselves in the intensity
of their playing.
The conductor’s hold on the final crescendo was perfectly
judged, with the closing passages being an overwhelming experience,
with bass drum and timpani driven in like nails, leaving the audience
with a feeling of exhilarated despair.
It was a fitting tribute to Shostakovich that the conductor
held up the score of the symphony to an ecstatic audience. And Gergiev
and the Philharmonia gave it a fitting performance.