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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Kirov in New York (I): Yefim Bronfman, Piano, Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 4 April, 2005 (BH)

Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10 (1911-12)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (1874; orch. Ravel, 1922)

Tchaikovsky: Waltz from Sleeping Beauty

Valery Gergiev knows how to tell a story, and if occasionally his passion for the tale at hand means he goes a bit overboard, he remains one of the most involving musical interpreters on the scene today. I have yet to find a listener who will confess to being enchanted with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, yet in Gergiev’s hands, and those of his magnificent ensemble, it opened the Kirov Orchestra’s three-night stand with startling polish and assurance. Few conductors can match Gergiev’s sense of outright drama, which he slightly underplays by not using a podium – he plants himself on the floor in front of his dedicated players. At intermission I spoke to several people previously unconvinced by this work, who were changed by Gergiev’s big-picture approach.

The Prokofiev First Piano Concerto that followed had a similar sense of a unifying arc, although I was a bit surprised when pianist Yefim Bronfman’s initial entrance seemed at a lower volume level than that of the orchestra – like a recording in which the pianist is dropped in later. It may mean that the group was playing so loudly that no pianist could humanly hope of matching them. That said, the man knows his Prokofiev, plummeting down the keyboard to keep up with the composer’s thorny demands. But the balance continued to be a slight problem: in the furious final pages, I felt as if I were watching a heavy rainstorm pelting down, but from the comfort of my living room, behind a pane of glass. Bronfman’s hands were moving at breakneck speed, yet occasionally the notes could only barely be discerned in the sound mix. Perhaps some of the fault is with the composer, whose lush palette is utterly delicious and understandably may tempt the players to showcase their own delectable instrumental parts.

Altered slightly from its original plan, the program was to have included the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. Several of us were mildly disappointed, for even as much as we admire Gergiev’s superhuman achievements in Russian repertoire, his thoughts on one of Sibelius’ greatest works would have been a conversation starter. But any speculation receded into the background pretty quickly after intermission, when the conductor launched into a brilliantly played Capriccio Espanol. This is extrovert music, with no dark undertones – it’s as sunny as sitting on a porch in Mallorca, and is just the kind of thing in which this orchestra seems to revel. The Kirov’s guest principal, Ilya Konovalov, was in fine form as surrogate gypsy, seemingly taxed to the maximum by Gergiev’s often hell-bent tempi. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration was urged into a whole that sometimes threatened to fall apart, but didn’t, only increasing the excitement, and Gergiev, expert showman that he is, ratcheted up the concluding accelerandos in a breathless ending.

The Mussorgsky was played like you always hope it will be, but rarely is. Again viewing the entire procession as a single arc, rather than a micro-managed bouquet of events, Gergiev created a vivid illusion of actually walking through a gallery and stopping to ponder the art. Gnomus climaxed with a beautifully timed crash, and the later Bydlo was as lumbering as one could want. Details abounded: I had never noticed in The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, that the flute motif returns, first heard in the Ballet of Chicks in their Shells – perhaps the monstrous Baba Yaga is accidentally stomping on some of them in its frenzied dance. As a whole, Gergiev encouraged more andante, moving things along with less emphasis on individual showmanship (even a few minor solo mishaps didn’t detract from the whole), and always, always keeping the larger view firmly in focus. Some gorgeous saxophone work by Alexander Nikolaev was especially notable among many fine players’ work.

I can’t recall a Kirov concert without at least one encore, and tonight’s was a warmly nocturnal Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. On the way out, two young women who might have been nineteen or so were merrily humming its unstoppable theme to each other.

Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)