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S & H Prom Review

PROM 42 Beethoven, Berlioz, Prokofiev Olga Borodina (mezzo); Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, RAH, Wednesday, August 20th, 2003 (CC)

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.

Colin Clarke


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