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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 42: Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, Royal Albert Hall, Friday 13 August 2004 (AN)


The concert programme ought to have come with a note of warning, for this evening’s Prom was not for the faint of heart! Musorgsky’s blood-curdling spell of sorcery launched a treacherous journey through witchcraft, murder, ghosts and barbaric pagan rites. At the helm stood Valery Gergiev, commandeering the BBC Symphony Orchestra with fiendish energy: Faustian pacts had been bartered.


St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain was offered up in its original 1867 form. The version we are more familiar with is that drawn up from the composer’s various sketches by fellow Russian Nationalist and master-orchestrator Rimsky-Korsakov. Musorgsky’s variant offers no respite – the beginning erupts as aggressively as the finale and a relentless pace drives throughout. (Let it not go unnoticed that the piece was composed within two weeks and completed on the eve of St John’s (Midsummer), its dedicatee!)


If there is a single comparison that favours Rimsky-Korsakov’s touch it is his superior structural organisation, although Gergiev’s potent interpretation argues a very strong case for Musorgsky’s less sophisticated ‘scattered variations’. The opening was electrifying with all instruments attacking as equals. After a pause, oboe and bassoon collected themselves to delineate the fundamental theme before surrendering to the overwhelming force of possessed conductor and orchestra. Further breaks agonised the heavy air of foreboding that came to an unsettling conclusion when a heavy thud crowned the silent aftermath of a high-pitched climax.


Unfortunately, no amount of conjuring could rescue Rimsky Korsakov’s operatic score. Tonight announced the first Proms performance of the third act from the critically condemned Mlada. No arguments there: a poor example from a composer who is renowned first and foremost as a brilliant orchestrator.


Viktor Krilov’s libretto is sinister, taking as its eponymous heroine a ghost, Mlada, who seeks to avenge her murder by the jealous Voyslava who covets her fiancé, Prince Yaromir. Originally intended to accompany an imperial theatre-commissioned collaboration of four composers (all members of the proclaimed "Mighty Handful" set), Rimsky Korsakov picked up the pieces of the failed venture twenty-seven years later and made it his own.


Act three hosts the supernatural and Rimsky Korsakov’s recent discoveries of exotic instruments at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition and Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Paling in comparison with similar techniques in the Teutonic Gesamtkunstwerk, undulating B major arpeggios cut a simplistic introduction whose stubborn protraction banished all mysticism for sheer monotony. Stasis is only momentarily relieved when a livelier section entertains a boisterous clarinet and murmuring female choir.


The second scene announced the first of two soloists, tenor Avgust Amonov playing the widowed Prince Yaromir, whose voice penetrated well even if a frustratingly wide vibrato erred on the flat side. Violin solos, courtesy of BBC SO leader Michael Davis, provided delightful interjections at the beginning and conclusion of this episode. But if there was a need to justify the Act as a whole, the evidence would be gathered from the third scene: The Witches’ Sabbath. Battles were fought on all territories, starting with orchestra who raged between a grisly accompaniment for the Evil Spirits and retorting screams. Voices also stood their ground as alto, soprano and male choir struggled for supremacy. The men too divided up to cater for the steadily threatening bass (Chernobog) and the shrill, nasal howling of unison tenors (Kashchey). Soprano Olga Savova made a brief yet stirring portrayal of the goddess of darkness.


The penultimate scene bore uncanny references to Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Bolero drum beats and Philip Glass’s characteristic repetitive two-note alternations – an amazing case study for musical references and premonitions! Pan-pipes penetrated the texture with brazen flourishes and the clarinet dared to soar to ecstatic heights. All died down for the contemplative finale, ushering in the break of dawn.


Gergiev was right to attack Stravinsky’s Rite before the audience had settled completely: the bloody tale of pagan dance and sacrifice would not wait about politely. It is no secret that the ballet’s 1913 première caused a riotous succès de scandale though probably more for Nijinsky’s modern choreography than for Stravinsky’s daring chordal superimpositions and fearsome percussive hegemony.


The performance was alive and wild, and particularly impressive were the drum-dominated movements in Part 2: The Sacrifice. Gergiev did not indulge in cheap melodramas and maintained fresh impact for a score that is so well known. It came as a surprise that Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic juxtapositions – switching, as he does for instance in the Round-dance of Spring, between dissonant woodwind outbursts and deep string syncopations – were not at all brought out. Gergiev smoothed over the eccentricities and sadly undervalued a performance that was otherwise thoroughly exciting. Alas, this sorcerer spoiled his broth.


Aline Nassif


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