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Prokofiev and Berlioz: Sergei Semishkur (tenor); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Chorus & Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; Valery Gergiev. Symphony Hall, Birmingham 15.10.2009 (JQ)

Sergei Prokofiev: Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op. 73

Hector Berlioz: Grande Messe des Morts, Op 5

The phenomenon that is Valery Gergiev came to Birmingham to give two concerts, on successive evenings, of which this was the repeat performance. He brought with him singers and players from the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, of which he is Artistic and General Director, to join forces with the CBSO and their chorus. The resulting alliance of Anglo-Russian musicians packed the platform of Symphony Hall and gave Gergiev the chance to present music that is not too often heard in concert on account of the large forces required.

Most conductors would have been content to perform the Berlioz in isolation, given the length of that work - ninety minutes in this performance. Indeed, it’s arguable that the Berlioz is one of those pieces that should be heard by itself, a view to which I incline. But Gergiev chose to preface the Berlioz with the rarely heard Prokofiev cantata, which lasted some forty-one minutes on this occasion. Throw in a thirty-minute interval to allow for the considerable platform rearrangement between the two works and you have a very long concert.

The Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution was written in 1937 but it immediately fell foul of Stalin’s “culture police” and it was not heard until 1966. Even then cuts were made to make it more ideologically acceptable in the Soviet Union during the post-Stalinist era. I believe I’m right in saying that it was first heard in the UK in 1992 when Neeme Järvi performed it at the time of making his complete recording for Chandos. Apart from any considerations of musical merit or political acceptability, it’s unsurprising that the work is rarely performed for Prokofiev did not stint himself in scoring it. The forces required include a truly massive orchestra, with choir to match, and within the orchestra there are parts for multiple brass and woodwind; a veritable arsenal of percussion; and an ensemble of accordions – five on this occasion. Throw in a separate brass ensemble – here placed on high, right behind the choir – and a cameo part for a speaker, who declaims his few lines though a megaphone, and you may begin to get an impression of more than a touch of excess.

Several knowledgeable judges rate the cantata highly; among them the late Christopher Palmer, in his notes for the aforementioned Järvi recording, and Music Web’s Rob Barnett, in reviewing the disc. With the best will in the world I’m not sure I can quite match their enthusiasm. Let it be said at once that there is much to admire in the piece, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but I don’t feel that the music consistently sustains a high level of invention and I’m far from sure that the musical strong points compensate for the text, over which I have some reservations.

Prokofiev wrote the cantata shortly after his return to Russia from his lengthy self-imposed exile from post-Revolutionary Russia. In his excellent programme note Geoffrey Baskerville made it clear that the work was not written on impulse in some burst of patriotic fervour by a returning exile. It seems Prokofiev had been thinking about a work based on Lenin’s writings since at least 1932.

What are we to make of the resulting work and what may have motivated Prokofiev to write it? Opinion seems divided. Baskerville suggests that Prokofiev was politically naïve. He also points out that Prokofiev had been favourably impressed by the apparent freedom given to radical artists in the years immediately following the Revolution. Furthermore, while living in exile in France, he came under the influence of some non-Russian friends who were communist sympathisers. In short, Baskerville makes a fairly plausible case that Prokofiev was “on message” in writing this piece. On the other hand, alongside his note we read in the programme a short quote from Gergiev in which he expresses the view that the cantata is “a very brave composition and it’s so sarcastic and it’s so critical and so powerful also [sic] of the system, historical events, the character of these events and the way it took place and the way it was shaping and changing the country. I think Prokofiev was very, very brave.” So, are we dealing with Prokofiev, the political naïf or Prokofiev, the closet dissident? With all due respect to Maestro Gergiev, I incline to the former view.

As I didn’t know the work at all I did some homework by acquiring the Järvi recording. Fine though that is, both as a performance and in terms of recorded sound, the sheer physical impact of the piece in the concert hall still takes one aback. Gergiev brought out all the vibrancy and excitement in the score and also did full justice to its lyrical side, of which there’s a surprising amount. He encouraged his performers to give their all. The orchestration is often graphic, not least in the long central section, ‘Revolution.’ Prokofiev often throws in every resource at his command. The percussion section were kept very busy throughout; near the end of the seventh section, ‘Victory’, as the choir sang the words “We need a measured advance of the iron battalions of the proletariat” several of the percussionists marched on the spot, their combined footfall on the wooden stage sounding for all the world like an advancing platoon – I promise, I’m not making this up!

But mention of those words brings to the fore what may be for some the stumbling block with the work. Prokofiev’s libretto consists largely of extracts from speeches and writings by Lenin and Stalin (Marx and Feuerbach get a look-in during section two!) The words undoubtedly had a far different import in 1937 but nowadays, even when we’re all used to flights of rhetoric from certain politicians, they can jar. In saying that I’m conscious that one is viewing the text with the benefit of historical hindsight. Even so, it’s rather hard to take passages such as those in section eight, ‘The Pledge’, taken from the words delivered unblushingly by Stalin at Lenin’s bier.

The performance was as committed and as red-blooded as you could wish to hear. The orchestra played with dash and gusto. I must say I think that Prokofiev piles on the decibels to a self-defeating level at times, but there’s much more to the work than mere noise; the more lyrical passages – and there are quite a few – were played with admirable depth of tone. The choir acquitted itself well. At several points the Russian singers were used as a kind of semi-chorus, albeit a substantial one. Perhaps it was felt better to leave some of the score to native Russian speakers but the CBSO chorus was substantially involved and when they were they contributed mightily, as one would expect from this expert British choir.

At the end, after the great C major apotheosis, the audience responded enthusiastically. My own reaction was more muted: I was impressed by the technical excellence of the performance but not greatly moved by the music.

After the interval the number of performers was somewhat reduced for the Grande Messe des Morts. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write or, indeed, read. Live performances of this mighty work are a comparative rarity on account of the substantial forces required and because the work needs a big performance space if it’s to make its proper effect. On balance, I think that’s a good thing because it makes the work a special occasion piece. In one way it was instructive to hear the piece straight after the Prokofiev because one great strength of the Grande Messe, I’ve always thought, is the discretion with which Berlioz uses his forces. Yes, there are apocalyptic passages, but these are all the more effective for being fairly few and far between. And while moments such as the ‘Tuba mirum’ are thrilling, the parts I admire even more are the restrained movements such as ‘Quaerens me’ and the Offertorium.

Berlioz included in his score parts for four separate brass groups, which he directed should be placed around the rest of the performers at the four points of the compass. In practice this is a difficult instruction to follow to the letter. Gergiev’s solution, which I thought an excellent one, was to position his brass in the Upper Circle. One group was placed at each end of that balcony, looking straight down onto the stage. The other two were placed on each side of the Upper Circle, just where the horseshoe bend begins. When these groups introduced the ‘Tuba mirum’ it was a truly awesome moment. Indeed, I can say truthfully that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. They weren’t always precisely together but that’s not unusual, even on commercial, studio-made recordings and, in fact, it rather adds to the impression of tumult. The men of the chorus rose magnificently to the challenge at this point. Even more thrilling, a few moments later, was ‘Judex ergo.’ One feared the roof of Symphony Hall might lift off as the entire ensemble gave their all. And yet, unlike several passages in the Prokofiev, this was not mere “noise”. In passages like this Berlioz gives an object lesson in the majesty of volume of sound. And the tumult is rendered all the more effective when, seconds later, he scales the volume right back, having the choir repeat the words ‘Judicante responsura’ very quietly and bringing the movement to a hushed end. What a magnificent use of contrast!

Later in the performance Gergiev once more made telling use of the physical space of Symphony Hall. The one movement in the Grande Messe that requires a soloist is the Sanctus. For this, I anticipated that Gergiev might position Sergei Semishkur remotely but I wasn’t prepared for him to sing from the very end of the Grand Tier, way above the platform. Indeed, it took me a little time to locate the source of the sound. This dramatic distancing of the solo voice was something of a coup and extremely effective. From his vertiginous perch Semishkur gave a fine account of this demanding solo. This young tenor has a fine mixture of steel and Slavic sap in his tone and his was a fine and atmospheric contribution to the success of the performance.

As in the Prokofiev, Gergiev galvanised his singers and players. This is, in many ways, a theatrical piece and Gergiev’s great experience in the pit undoubtedly paid dividends. He ensured that the big moments, such as the ‘Tuba mirum’ and the ‘Rex tremendae’ were impressive, indeed spectacular, and at the end of the ‘Lacrymosa’ the musical juggernaut rolled on its way with dreadful power. However, he was properly alive to many of the nuances in the more restrained sections of this vast score.

The performance was hugely impressive but it was not flawless. I was a little disappointed by the Offertorium movement. This is, in many ways, my favourite part of the work. Berlioz’s originality of thought is admirable here. Few composers would have thought, in a substantial choral movement, to make the choir the accompanists, just singing a repeated two-note phrase. It’s the orchestra that takes centre stage here and there’s some wonderfully inventive and expressive writing for the instruments. Unfortunately I felt that Gergiev failed to obtain sufficient quiet playing from the orchestra. It’s true that there are some moments when the orchestral lines must sing out ardently – and that was achieved – but much of the orchestral writing should be quite subdued and too often it seemed that Gergiev had settled for an all-purpose dynamic range between mp and mf.

For the most part the choir’s contribution was heroic. The basses provided a solid foundation of tone and the tenors, whose part is unremittingly demanding, sang fearlessly. However, there were some occasions when tuning was less than precise. Also, I noted that in the ‘Quaerens me’, which the Russians sang by themselves, the soprano tone was rather tremulous – an excess of vibrato, I suspect – and the tenors were taxed a few times by the cruel tessitura. It must also be noted that sometimes, especially when singing quietly, the whole choir’s attack wasn’t quite as precise as I would have expected. I wonder if the fault lay with Gergiev? His conducting technique is certainly individual. Not only does he eschew a baton but also he waggles the wrist of his right hand a good deal while beating time. All this seems to make for a somewhat imprecise beat, which must be disconcerting to follow except for musicians who are very used indeed to performing for him. I’m afraid I couldn’t help but wonder if such imprecisions would have been ironed out if the Berlioz had been performed by itself and so had even more rehearsal time.

However, these are minor quibbles when set against the overall sweep and conviction of the performance. Berlioz concludes the Grande Messe with a wonderful series of ‘Amens’, using some unexpected harmonic shifts, and with everything underpinned by the muffled thudding of the massed timpani. As these bars unfolded there was a fine sense of completion and, happily, the audience, under the spell of the performance, allowed the last chord to die away and a short silence to elapse before showing their very vociferous appreciation.

This was a great occasion. It was a long evening but one that was very worthwhile and which showed that there’s nothing to beat the thrill of live music making. The Prokofiev performance was an interesting experience; the Berlioz was an unforgettable one.

John Quinn

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