For their second Prom appearance,
the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under the volatile Valery Gergiev opened
with an exhilarating and evocative account of Maurice Ravel’s Alborada
del gracioso. Gergiev enticed some rhythmically taut playing, with
the percussion especially playing with a particularly sparkling, festive
This was followed by the UK premiere
of Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Warzone, which was commissioned
for the 2002 Rotterdam Gergiev Festival and premiered by the conductor.
In a letter written to Gergiev, the composer explains the germination
of the tile: "For the title of my dedicatory work I chose the Ossetian
word vorzon, which means ‘love’. But when I wrote the word in
Latin characters, it suddenly became clear to me that the sound of the
word in a certain way corresponded to the English word ‘warzone’…As
we know, it often takes just one thoughtless move to turn love into
a ‘warzone’. The way from ‘warzone’ back to love, however, is long and
Strikingly similar to Kalevi
Aho’s Ninth Symphony (PROM
40) in its violent contrasts of
style, space and time, Kancheli’s Warzone is about the immediate closeness
of ‘joy’ and ‘sorrow’. Its often- opaque music opens with fragmented
murmurings from the orchestra, followed by a sequence of interjected
silences. Between the silence, the music takes on a more unified shape
with distant high-string tones suddenly interrupted by carnivalesque
percussion. Like Aho’s Ninth Symphony, what made this music so disturbingly
powerful were the abrupt switches of emotion. Throughout Gergiev conducted
with great sensitivity conjuring a sense of both melancholic dreaminess
and joyous celebration.
After such an atmospheric and
multi-shaded reading of Alborada del gracioso, Gergiev’s interpretation
of Ravel’s La Valse was rather brutal, missing this work’s sense
of mystery and menace: the percussion were brittle, the strings too
heavy. Ravel’s subtle score, arguably one of the most difficult to conduct,
requires greater skill in mastering the cross-rhythms and gear-changes
to capture that sense of doom-laden, inexorable menace. What should
have been a white-knuckle ride in waltz-time, with the terror gradually
building to a shattering climax, was largely dissipated in favour of
something more ambiguous. Guido Cantelli, on The Art of Guido Cantelli:
New York Concerts & Broadcasts, 1949-1952 (Music
& Arts CD-1120:12) or
Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra: Ravel (RCA 6522) give paradigm
performances of this work.
Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique
is much more suited to Gergiev’s volatile and impassioned temperament:
from beginning to end he lived every emotion of this revolutionary score.
The opening Dreams had an eerie static quality, with the orchestra
sounding as if it was playing in a hypnotic sleep. With Passions
the orchestra awoke and took on a dark impassioned sound with throbbing
double basses producing a weighty rugged texture, and the use of ‘hard
sticks’ gave the timpani added intensity. Here Gergiev’s appropriately
passionate conducting had a sense of urgency, with taut rhythms and
angular phrasing heightening the experience.
In A Ball, Gergiev conducted
with a sweeping lilt, securing stylish playing from the strings and
harps. The Scene in the Country was deeply felt and sensitively
conducted with Gergiev sustaining the music in a highly concentrated
manner. The cor anglais solos were hauntingly poignant as were the murmurous
timpani rolls, perfectly rendered by the three timpanists. Hard sticks
in the March to the Scaffold created the sensation of threatening
terror, further emphasised by some cutting-edged, gutsy playing from
the strings: Gergiev achieved the perfect mood of nervous tension.
In the opening bars of Dream
of a Sabbath Night we were treated to some acidically pointed woodwind
playing which perfectly conveyed the feeling of shrill, demonic laughter.
Here Gergiev conducted this manic music with swagger, conjuring up a
nightmare of swirling sounds: screaming woodwind, raucous brass, acrid
strings – sulphurous stuff indeed. The white hot ending with the full
orchestra was given extra weight by the two thudding bass drums, bringing
this excellent account of a difficult work to a triumphant close.
An encore was inevitable, and
Berlioz provided it. Gergiev chose the Hungarian (Rákóczy)
March from The Damnation of Faust,
and gave a spirited performance of this popular piece.