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Stravinsky: Alexei Volodin, piano, New York Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 8.5.2010 (GG)


Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movement, Concerto for Piano and Wind instruments (1950) Le Sacre du Printemps (1913)

The Russian Stravinsky festival came to a close with an exceptional program of the composer’s most famous work, one of his greatest works and one of his most enjoyable. Heading into Avery Fisher hall, it was easy and reasonable to have high expectations based on the previous concerts in the festival and especially Gergiev’s exceptional leadership in the other great, early ballets, all of which made this concert that much more stunning.

The Symphony in Three Movements is one of Stravinsky’s great masterpieces, and seems to be developing a new vogue after decades of being the least known of this three mature symphonies. It synthesizes all the composer’s virtues into one package; an attention grabbing opening statement, funky and propulsive rhythms, extroverted orchestral colors, dramatically brilliant passages, a transparent and concentrated structure and the sensation that it’s duration is exactly right. Stravinsky marks the opening movement at quarter note equals one hundred sixty, a fairly brisk allegro, but Gergiev set out a more maestoso tempo that he controlled with great skill and rigor through the movement. The interpretive choice, and his additional focus on the accents in the brass section, revealed the sense of burgeoning power and precision that is inherent in the piece with greater strength and clarity than even the composers own classic recording. The slower tempo also gave a completely different flavor to the Mozartian music that comes in around the four-minute mark, more elegiac in this performance than the usual dry wit. The tension that builds and releases in the first movement is developed predominantly through rhythm, and Gergiev allowed the beats to fight with each other in a fascinating and exciting way.

Gergiev continued this careful but never overly deliberate crafting of the symphony in the second movement; the music was graceful, but the emphasis was on a slightly unnerving pastoral pas de deux rather than just a lyrical interlude. His control over tempo and rhythm, and his top down approach to attacking accents, seemed ideal. He had particular ideas about the strength and meaning of this music, expressed them clearly, and made then sound like the best ideas all the way through to the final pungently brilliant chord. This sympathy between composer and conductor held through the Concerto, joined by Volodin. The ideals of this piece are clarity and precision, and every note and phrase in the orchestra was circumscribed, every pitch held and blended exactly, terrific accompaniment for Volodin’s light touch. The crisp, recursive piano part comes out of Bach and Czerny, and the wonderful flourishes of artifice are both critical and loving of the mannerisms of the Baroque. The lyrical brass parts in the short Largo were extraordinarily full and beautiful, and there was a collaborative balance between orchestra and soloist throughout the performance. Gergiev’s tempos again were ideal; the articulation defined the shape and structure of the music, with truly beautiful playing. Fine in every way.

After tremendous performances of The Firebird and Petrushka, it was perhaps dangerous to anticipate equal fireworks in Le Sacre. It turned out, however, that it was impossible to anticipate just how spectacular the performance was, one of the great renditions of all time. At this point in history, great orchestras like the NY Philharmonic play this music almost with ease, and audiences know it and love it almost unthinkingly. Gergiev lead a performance that seemed renewed in conception and also in the sense of excitement and challenge in the music. As throughout the festival, he choose tempos with great care and some surprise, and conveyed them with confident ease, and the orchestra articulated every phrase with power, color and transparency. The conductor’s reputation is not that of a Boulez-like illuminator of the score, but his Le Sacre revealed as much detail as seems possible. The combination of conception and musicianship meant that the overall sense of drama was expressed, and this was what made the music seem so new. While it’s a ballet, it is usually heard as a piece of absolute music, but Gergiev told the strange and gripping story with a real sense of narrative and intensity. Every interpretive choice seemed the right one; the drawn out pastoral tune in the bassoon, the emphasis on the bass clarinet and alto flute, the edge-of-your-seat tempo in the “Augurs of Spring.” That was faster than I’ve heard, and the “Mock Abduction” much faster than the norm, frightening in its malevolence and thrilling in the sense of the orchestra playing just at the edge of their ability. Even the “Spring Rounds” was fast, but in all these speeds time just flowed without haste. The orchestra played the lyrical phrases in this section with incredible tenderness, creating an emotional mood before the chords come crashing down.

Gergiev milked the drama just to the edge of sentimentality by such simple devices as waiting an extra beat between the “Procession of the Sage” and the “Adoration of the Earth.” He continually built the tension with only the slightest modulations for relief, so that the explosive end of the first half hung in the air, like a held breath. The opening, icy chord of “The Sacrifice” came as that breath’s exhalation, but without repose. He brought out so many detailed musical possibilities in the second half; gorgeous, truly pianissimo horns in the “Mystical Cycle of the Young Girls,” sublime drama through the almost static fanfares of the “Evocation of the Ancestors” and the stiff pulse of the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors.” Le Sacre is structurally unbalanced, and even with the best conductors the intensity of the first half frequently gives way to a slackening of concentration in the second, but Gergiev slowly, consistently layered one bit of tension and energy on the last, so the “Sacrificial Dance” exploded spontaneously. The start-stop rhythms flowed dazzlingly and the tempo was again fast without feeling rushed. In the closing pages, Gergiev allowed the orchestra to play with a riotous freedom that is truly rare, with the horns literally roaring extra-musically. He grabbed hold of this mass of sound just at the last moment, and held the final pause for a beat, then an extra beat, then again, then once more, and no one breathed or had a thought until the virgin’s heart had exploded. Extraordinary, unforgettable, and beyond music.

George Grella

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