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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Kirov in New York (III): Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”, Soloists, Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 6 April, 2005 (BH)

Irina Mataeva, Soprano
Olga Borodina, Mezzo-Soprano
Russian Chamber Chorus of New York
Nikolai Kachanov, Artistic Director
The Riverside Choral Society
Patrick Gardner, Director

Sometime around 1998 I heard Valery Gergiev do the Mahler Sixth with the New York Philharmonic – a devastating performance that the New York Times characterized as “draped in darkness” – but I’ve not heard the maestro do any other Mahler since. Happily, last night witnessed a luminously thinking mind bringing dozens of new insights to a work I have heard scores of times, both in live performance and on recordings.

From the very first bars, it became clear that tonight’s would be an intensely dramatic traversal, without the gloss of some of the interpretive “statements” that some conductors make. In the long opening movement, as elsewhere, Gergiev adopted tempi that seemed inevitably right. As a single example, consider the final phrase that ends the first movement – a huge descending scale for the entire orchestra in unison. Simon Rattle has taken this startlingly slow, as if a huge boulder is slowly being lowered into place, and although radical, it works quite effectively in his hands. Others treat it almost as a scherzo, tumbling down with the whole thing over in about five seconds. Gergiev’s was on the more deliberate side, but not to a point that stretched the music out of shape, and I felt that way about his choices all evening – thoughtful, but not extreme, and he kept the thing moving, moving, moving, with tempi immaculately judged on their own terms, as well as in relation to what had come before, and what was to come. One of the hallmarks of all three of these Kirov concerts was his attention to the large scale, and although there was never a lack of fresh detail, Gergiev’s focus on the big picture paid off especially well on this final night.

The second movement Landler flowed like a bubbling brook, with again, many distinctive details emerging that showed Gergiev’s depth of study. One brief pizzicato passage for the double basses was highlighted with just enough accents to sound almost like jazz. The delirious Scherzo, which is probably my favorite part aside from the luminous final movement, had a compelling fleetness. One friend thought it too fast, but again, for most listeners a faster, more whirling dance-like approach is probably more persuasive, increasing the effect of the episodic sequences “interrupting each other.” Gergiev also intensified many of the instrumental colors, such as the clacking strings in their stunning col legno rapping near the end. At the beginning of the rapturous Urlicht, Olga Borodina was slightly hesitant, but only briefly, and then she brought a rich, warm and firmly focused sound to a part that is usually delivered by singers more comfortable with lieder than opera. (Either can work.) Ms. Borodina made the words glow like embers.

Without much of a break, the last movement fairly exploded, with taut playing and focus, combined with phrases allowed to die out comfortably. Gergiev scrupulously defined dynamic markings, with the notable exception of the offstage band, which was slightly too loud to create the illusion of distance, but overall, the ensemble found admirable pianissimos, with the audience in dutiful silence. Irina Mataeva, whom I last saw in the Kirov’s marvelously lurid Prokofiev Semyon Kotko two years ago, added her limpid soprano to the cause as Gergiev began gathering the forces together, like crowds assembling knowing they are about to participate in a great historical event.

The Riverside Choral Society, combined with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York for a total of some 150 people, was one of the highlights of the evening, with impassioned, throaty singing to complement Gergiev’s slightly rough-hewn vision. The initial entrance of the chorus, easily one of the most spellbinding moments in classical music, was very moving indeed. The final fifteen minutes or so are difficult for me to recall in detail, since I was swept up by Gergiev’s drama, coursing toward the final pages’ roaring splendor. The Kirov’s percussionists added more than usual metallic clangor to the final radiant chord, like Easter bells raining down – one of Mahler’s most piquant mixes.

The Kirov players, for the most part, delivered gutsy, emotion-filled playing that slightly outclassed their work on the previous two nights. This was a Mahler Second that was filled with grit and soot, as if one discovered an ancient building with windows thick with grime, being slowly cleaned as the evening progressed. I’ve enjoyed many ways of doing this piece, from Bernstein’s overwrought slow burn in the mid-1980s, to Chailly’s thunderous showpiece in 2002, to Salonen’s exultant 2003 reading, reveling in the work’s ability to show off Los Angeles’ incomparable new concert hall. Gergiev can stand with the best. At his best in high drama, he found many groaning, harsh undercurrents in the score, only underlining the long trajectory from darkness, which for some Mahlerians is exactly the ticket required.

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)