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The Kirov at the Sage 2:   Vadim Repin (vln)The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (Kirov), conductor Valery Gergiev, The Sage, Gateshead, 13 and 16.05.2006 (JL)

Saturday, 13.05 2006

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto  No. 2

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

Tuesday, 16.05 2006

Mussorgsky:  Night on a Bald Mountain

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto  No. 1

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10



It was 46 years ago that  Shostakovich’s mighty  Eighth Symphony was introduced to the West by its dedicatee, Evgeny Mravinsky, conducting his own Leningrad (now St Petersburg) Philharmonic in the Royal Festival Hall, London. That night, 23rd September 1960, was recalled recently in a BBC radio programme.  People who had been at the concert, ranging from those that were very young at the time through to hard-bitten critics, recounted the experience. All described the event in similar terms, as the most impactful, electrifying, breathtaking experience of their concert-going lives. The cause of this reaction was the combination of the intrinsic power of the work (then 17 years old but new to most of the audience) with playing of a previously unheard intensity.


Not only was the work unfamiliar; so was the sound the orchestra made. Strings played with a crisp virtuosity but with less romantic bloom and vibrato than common in the West, whilst the brass used more vibrato to produce an unfamiliar intensity and the woodwinds had a more clean, reedy sound. This came to be thought of as the “Russian sound” and would have been what the composer knew and presumably wrote for.   Those who booked tickets at the Sage concert hall on Saturday, 13th May to hear the very same work played by one of the world’s leading conductors at the helm of his own St Petersburg orchestra would have every right to expect a splendidly idiomatic performance. 


Valery Gergiev has been with the with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (still stubbornly referred to by many as the “Kirov” – its old Soviet name) for 18 years now and in that time has moulded it to produce not only the sound he wants but has gradually turned it into a concert orchestra of some renown, no longer lying in the intimidating shadow of its big sister orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Judging by the mediocre playing I heard coming from the pit during an operatic performance in the Mariinsky 20 years ago,  he has brought the orchestra  a very long way indeed.


Compared with the last orchestra I heard in the fine acoustic of the Sage, the Vienna Philharmonic, Gergiev’s string sound is clean, lean and mean, thus retaining some of that “Russian” quality  I referred to earlier and it seems to me it is a sound that suits the music. The brass, however, he has toned down to a more Western or “Germanic” sound.  This was obvious in the famous trumpet solo in the third movement of the Symphony. On the recording of Mravinsky’s 1960 performance, the trumpeter indulged a tight vibrato that imparted to the solo a driven, penetrating quality. In comparison, Gergiev’s first trumpet sounded polite. Not only that, Mravinsky took the movement slightly faster, the combined effect being more exciting than Gergiev. This may surprise some because Gergiev has a reputation for fiery performances.


Conversely, Gergiev opened the work’s weighty first movement adagio with much greater urgency than Mravinsky  thus getting the audience straight in the mood of a work that is frequently unbearingly, teeth-janglingly intense. Mravinsky started the work with more gravitas, suggesting the opening of a work that is to unfold into a musical narration of great import. On balance I prefer Mravinsky’s approach but that is a personal view. 


The Symphony took up the second half of the concert, suitably offset by Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, a work that mixes some gorgeously romantic long melody with a bouncing breeziness. The soloist, Vadim Repin, has been working with Gergiev since a very young man about 20 years ago and the most impressive thing about this performance was the rapport between conductor, soloist and orchestra, something that is rarely heard to this degree. Repin has a no-nonsense style that is technically immaculate, intonationally perfect, suitably romantic without being over-indulgent but capable of panache. These are qualities that perfectly match Gergiev’s orchestra and the conductor accompanied his soloist with a subtle balance bordering on absolute perfection. 


Following that Saturday concert, I returned on Tuesday to hear Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. In the meanwhile, the orchestra had played in Scotland on Sunday and Ireland on Monday. Gergiev must assume that the members of his orchestra can cope with the kind of punishing workload to which he famously submits himself. There was no sign of fatigue as the players launched into Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain. Gergiev drove this with speed, punch and energy that I though was partly  at the expense of some of the mysterious, atmospheric side to the music. What the score did highlight was one of the orchestra’s sound characteristics which is a kind of weight and depth in the lower strings and brass which offsets the bright sound of the upper strings.


Vadim Repin then returned to play Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto  and again we were treated to a performance  characterised by faultless balance, virtuosity, ensemble and intonation. Repin coped with some of the most hair raising difficulties of his part with such ease that I sometimes felt I missed that frisson that derives from the knowledge that a soloist is right at the edge of their technique.


Likewise, the orchestra played what is probably Shostakovich’s most popular symphony as if they could do it standing on their heads. But there was no sense of jaded over-familiarity with the way they responded to Gergiev’s driven climaxes, culminating in a spectacular finish that brought the audience to its feet.


Like the Eighth Symphony, a great deal of the weight and seriousness of the work is in the first movement which gradually, contrapuntally unfolds from quiet, sombre beginnings. Gergiev, as in the Eighth, attacked the opening with an urgency that did not allow this to happen, although he still managed to pace the music towards its climaxes. Nevertheless I thought it interpretively misconceived and it  was not the way that Mravinsky did it in his recordings. Mravinsky premiered the work in 1953, the year of Gergiev’s birth, and  being the  towering musical figure he was, it is strange that Gergiev does depart  from some of  the great conductor’s practice, especially since Gergiev has said that in conducing Shostakovich, “Mravinky’s influence shines through: he is there with us, whatever your own ideas may be”.


Nevertheless, Gergiev is entitled to his own ideas and these two concerts were memorable experiences. In these days of jet setting, itinerant conductors, there are very few leading orchestras that have sustained such a long and close partnership with one man. The results are evident from a musical machine as slick as you are likely to hear and their conductor has that ability to get them to perform at high energy levels, however tour weary they may be.  This is done with an unorthodox, batonless technique that sometimes involves only the twitching fingers of his right hand which seem to impart invisible jolts of electricity to the players.


The new Sage concert hall, with its replication of the traditional European shoe-box shape, was a superb acoustic in which to hear the orchestra and I would urge any within striking distance to give it a visit. Be warned though: the much criticised refreshment and bar arrangements, together with a  chronic shortage of seating and tables in spite of the vast public space available, are still, well after a year, inadequate. To cap it all, I could not get a programme for the Tuesday concert. They’d run out!


John Leeman






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