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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Kirov at the Sage 1: Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, The Kirov Orchestra, conductor Valery Gergiev, Hall 1, The Sage, Gateshead, 12.05.2006 (JP)


Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 7
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5



Having endured a famine of orchestral music in the North East since February, a greatly welcomed feast began last night with the first in a series of four concerts by the Kirov Orchestra. Each of the concerts contains a major work by Shostakovich, and all are programmed over the next six days.


The first piece, Mussorgskyís Khovanshchina Prelude, was played with all of the stillness that is so effective in this short work. Mussorgsky suffered from uncontrolled bouts of heavy drinking at the time he was writing his opera Khovanschina, but managed to complete the Prelude and eight other parts before ceasing work on it and beginning Sorochintsky Fair instead. After his death, the opera was completed and padded out by Rimsky Korsakov, with a later (and more successful) edition being prepared by Shostakovich. The orchestral blending was superb here, showing very clearly the extraordinary rapport between conductor and his orchestra. Every ounce of the Shostakovitch editionís atmosphere came over clearly and with the full and necessary quota of emontions.


Prokofievís Symphony No. 7, written in 1952, is very cinematic in nature and closer to the Classical Symphony than any of the composer's others. This work, Prokofievís last symphony, is not as popular as it should be, since it is easily assimilatedand abounding with good tunes often to my mind at least, in the vein of Romeo and Juliet. It is set in conventional mode with four movements Moderato, Allegretto, Andante espressivo and Vivace and perhaps it was this relatively simple structure that caused some early critics to find it so unacceptable, when compared to the composerís bigger and more complex pieces.


This lightweight symphony offered the first opportunity for the Kirov's superb string section to open out and send shivers down spines. Although this is a normal sized string section, the sound is opulent and and thrilling and it was pure delight to be able to experience this orchestra live for the first time. Well known from recordings the actual sound in the concert was mesmerising and Gergiev's legendary rapport with his players was everything that reputation promised.


After the interval, the orchestra returned with the main work in the concert, the fifth symphony of Shostakovich. As is well known, this work indicated a change in direction of the composerís style, and the effect that it had on the original audiences (all living with Stalin's oppressions) was reputedly profound. The composer's subtitle for the work, ďA Soviet artistís reply to just criticismĒ was arguably ambiguous of course but the work's greatness (even today) is surely its mix of humanity and optimism, even in the face of unimaginable suffering.


The orchestra rose to new heights in this reading, and driven by Gergievís unique style of direction gave a superb performance of the work which was greeted with unbridled delight by the large North East audience. The third movement, the great adagio, was played with a sensitivity which obviously reached all sections of the audience, if the conversations overheard as we were leaving, were anything to go by.


All three performances were essentially note perfect, and played with a fervour that clearly showed the rapport between all of the individual artists as well as between conductor and players as a whole. If I were to be super-critical, I might mention one  slight fluff by the first horn in the first movement of the Shostakovich and a fractionally late tamtam splash at the same movement's climax. But small 'imperfections' can be assets too in some circumstances: they remind us that orchestral players are altogether human - surely a bonus in this most human of symphonies.

If there was any disappointment to this concert it was   that the audience could see what looked suspiciously like music for an encore half hidden by the Shostakovich scores; but despite rapturous applause none was forthcoming. A pity of course, but three more concerts were to follow, all full of promise and making the the long wait for this season more than worthwhile.


John Phillips


John Leeman will report the second and fourth concerts in this series on Friday (Ed.)




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