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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Kirov in New York (II): Leonidas Kavakos, Violin, Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 5 April, 2005 (BH)

Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina (1872-80; orch. Shostakovich, 1959)
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 40 (1924-25)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 (1903-04; 1905)
Borodin: Symphony No. 2 in B Minor (1869-76)

In the second of the Kirov’s three concerts here, a colleague who is more familiar with the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration of the Khovanshchina Prelude was commenting on the similarities to the Shostakovich version, heard tonight. Gergiev and the orchestra plumbed its magic with some soulful string playing (the double basses in this ensemble are amazing) and a very slow tempo in the final few bars, with glistening bells lingering in the air as if hanging by threads from forest trees.

The Prokofiev is a brazen, nose-thumbing animal that some fans of the Classical Symphony (the First) would hardly recognize as the work of the same composer. His Second occupies the same world as the Scythian Suite (1914-15), the ballet Le Pas d’acier (1925-26) or Mosolov’s Iron Foundry (1927), all with chomping, machine-like rhythms being stamped out at a meteoric rate. Occasionally the hammering may have numbed with their unvarying pace, but the unrelenting barbarism, combined with the continually unexpected turns in structure, was also undeniably exciting.

The piece is in two movements that total about forty minutes. Most of the pummeling comes in the shrieking, brittle Allegro ben articolato, but the Theme and Variations that follow have plenty of oddities, too, mostly in their unusual orchestration. One of the last of the six variations opens with a chorus of low brass – bassoons and contrabassoon – coupled with double bass, creating an odd growl at the lowest end of the spectrum. The extended length of the Second seemed to test the patience of some in the audience, but Gergiev and his eager players should be given enormous praise for programming this rare bit of early Prokofiev savagery.


After intermission, the mood changed sharply when Leonidas Kavakos joined the ensemble for a hushed and highly effective Sibelius Violin Concerto. Kavakos opened with an almost anemic tone, which was quickly revealed to be part of his strategy, and the entire span was infused with a sorrow that doesn’t always appear as profoundly as it did here. Always at one with the ensemble, Kavakos demonstrated that despite its fits of fireworks, this particular concerto is more introverted than some might think. The second movement, Adagio di molto, was haunting in its reticence. The orchestra accompanied him with great subtlety, including some very impressive pianissimos, always cued by Gergiev’s mysteriously floating hands. The depth of this reading made me regret even more the loss of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony the night before.

But no one could complain that he didn’t get his concert dollar’s worth, since the Borodin Second Symphony began at ten o’clock almost on the dot. As a friend said at intermission, this is the kind of piece that one rarely hears these days, since it’s considered “not fashionable” – which just goes to show that one shouldn’t always look to fashion for excitement, inspiration and sheer musical pleasure. A few ensemble stage frights aside – there was some mild confusion for a few seconds in the peppery Scherzo – this was a meaty, broadly fulfilling performance of a work that should be welcomed broadly with greater frequency. If the audience response seemed slightly muted after the triumphant Allegro finale, I have no doubt that part of this was due to the time, approximately ten-thirty, when some had already begun to leave in exhaustion.

Too bad for them however, since even at the relatively late hour, it would be un-Gergiev-ian to send everyone home without a nightcap, and tonight’s struck a bit of a sentimental chord. During the Borodin, phrases of another piece kept knocking at the back of my head. Some of the motifs sounded oh-so familiar, but I just couldn’t quite retrieve them from the mental library. Lo and behold, the answer miraculously appeared, in a childhood favorite that I had not heard either live or recorded in probably twenty-five years: the glittering “Dance of the Buffoons” (a.k.a. “Dance of the Tumblers”) from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, tossed off with as much dashing bravura as anyone could possibly want. Leaving the hall and bopping down the stairs, I felt as giddy as those young women after the Tchaikovsky encore on the previous night.

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)