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S & H Prom Review

PROM 43: Ravel, Kancheli, Berlioz; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev  (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 21st August, 2003 (AR)


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 Spanish spirit.

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 hard…"

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.

Alex Russell

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