Strange that there were, again,
large areas of vacant seats for this Prom. Maybe it was the thought
of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, not universally known as one of the greats.
Unfortunate for those not there, then, as this was a thought-provoking
and stimulating concert delivered with a high degree of panache.
Gergiev’s affinity with Prokofiev
is well-documented (try his series of recordings on Philips, for example;
also, see my review of a stirring Third Symphony at the Royal Festival
Hall with the LPO in February this year). He is less associated with
Beethoven. Perhaps it is entirely in keeping with this conductor’s Weltanschauung
that he eschewed the more obvious choices (Egmont, Prometheus
etc) for the Overture, Die Weihe des Hauses, Op. 124 (1822).
A product of Beethoven’s final decade, it was composed for the reopening
of the Josephstädter Theater and makes clear the composer’s respect
for the music of Handel in its fugal writing and grand manner.
Gergiev’s approach was big-boned
and entirely masculine. The opening brought with it a curious effect:
it was almost as if, rather than have tutti chords (not entirely
together, admittedly) separated by silence, it was the chords themselves
that were punctuating a silence (an interesting reversal). Themes were
presented with appropriate ceremony, woodwind were robust, trumpets
nimble (the ‘Allegro’ was exactly that, keeping everybody on their toes).
Wind and brass were marvellously punchy and, most importantly, a sense
of the theatre underpinned the whole. The fugue had all the determination
one could wish for.
There is no doubting the stature
of the great mezzo, Olga Borodina, a star of the Kirov Opera who made
her European debut as Delilah opposite Domingo at Covent Garden in 1992.
Here she was in Berlioz’ Le mort de Cléopâtre (1829).
She had a lot to live up to: the last time I heard this piece live (quite
a few years ago now) the soloist was Jessye Norman (Ashkenazy conducted).
In the event, Borodina’s diction was superb, her placing of the higher
reaches of her register spot on. More than this, she entered into the
heart of Berlioz’ portrayal of the dying heroine.
Of course, the expressive power
of the piece is dependent on the orchestra’s contribution also, and
Gergiev and his Rotterdam forces did not disappoint. The orchestra now
transmogrified into a pit orchestra, shadowing the soloist with almost
supernatural precision. Long rehearsal time seemed to be in evidence.
Textures were exquisitely balanced and, when need be, laid bare (the
progressive double-bass writing and the disjunct vocal line and orchestral
comments of the closing pages, for example). Recitative-like passages
were paced entirely naturally and, perhaps most importantly, soloist
and conductor were both aware of the expressive power of characteristically
Berliozian appoggiaturas. All this added up to a performance that was
significantly more than the sum of its parts.
The all-Prokofiev second half
began with a rarity: the Symphonic Song, Op. 57 (1933). If the
title suggests to you (as it did to me) a lyrical outpouring in best
Romeo and Juliet mode, forget it. This is Prokofiev at his most
ascerbic, making what might charitably be called unreasonable demands
on his players (the programme note writer, David Gutman, uses the word
‘impossibilist’ in connection with this). Unsurprisingly the reception
at its première was muted in the extreme if contemporary accounts
are anything to go by, and the speaker at the pre-Prom talk, David Fanning,
used the word ‘uncomfortable’ to describe it. Recordings are notably
thin on the ground, too (there is one on Chandos CHAN8728 with the RSNO
and Neeme Järvi). Divided into three parts, ‘darkness-conflict-achievement’,
it is certainly a curious yet enervating work. There appear to be Romantic
gestures under the surface bursting to get out which are doomed never
to come to fruition. Heavy, ominous clouds overlook the whole. The ‘Conflict’
section, unsurprisingly, is characterised by march-like tramping: the
brass writing here might be accurately criticised as ‘unfeasible’, and
all credit to the Rotterdam brass for giving it a go. The final section
for muted strings was beautiful in the extreme, though, rounding off
a piece which raised a multitude of questions and which begged to be
revisited as soon as possible.
At least with the earlier Scythian
Suite (1915) we were back on more familiar territory, and Gergiev
pulled out all the stops. The opening of ‘Adoration of Veles and Ada’
was almost dizzying, and the music tended towards the incendiary. Again,
the motoric ‘Chuzhbog and the Dance of the Evil Spirits’ was positively
visceral in effect, the orchestra revelling unashamedly in the element
of show. The colourful, evocative ‘Night’ led to the wonderfully colourful
orchestration of ‘March of Lolly and Procession of the Sun’, brought
to vivid life by Gergiev and his Rotterdammers. Prokofiev’s additive
technique leading towards the climax, where layer is superimposed upon
layer, was tremendously exciting, as was the climax itself, which emerged
as bright as can be, a true brilliant white as opposed to the yellow
of the sun!
Remarkable. Gergiev, on his day,
can bring music to life in a way few other living conductors can. This
was one of those occasions and it was a privilege to be present.