From Russia With Love
Valery Gergiev, conductor of Stradivarius Ensemble of the Mariinsky Orchestra
Works by Strauss, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky - Orpheum, October 20, 2011
It is always a cause for celebration when one of the world’s most renowned conductors comes to Vancouver with his own Russian orchestra to perform his own national music. So it is with Valery Gergiev, a truly charismatic and electric conductor, making his second visit here in recent years with an ensemble of 23 select musicians from the Mariinsky Orchestra (of the Kirov Ballet). This a particularly ‘Russian’ year for Gergiev; the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky works played in this concert are in addition to the 20 other Russian works that he will perform this season as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.
The highlight of this night was the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Trumpet (1933), featuring Alexander Toradze as pianist and Timur Martynov on the trumpet. This work is usually performed as a sleek, agile, and fun work on a smaller scale — the trumpet adding satirical little march fragments to further the fun. On this occasion, however, the concerto was treated as a larger and more serious work, in the spirit of later Shostakovich. The pianist’s statement of the catchy opening theme set the stage — more consciously expressive and inflected than usual. In turn, the middle movements were given overwhelming intensity and weight, some passages having an almost Mahlerian feel. Even the last movement, with its brazen trumpet tune, was less athletic and more forceful than usual. Taking an early work of a composer apart and putting it back together with a ‘larger than life’ maturity can of course be risky. Here it succeeded because of the sheer commitment of the performers. In many ways, Gergiev’s scale and intensity were too much, but the insight and variety in the pianist’s playing provided just the right contrast. The orchestra was a great collaborator in all this too, from the light and feathery violins in the first movement through the searing and weighty attacks later on.
The same command was present in Gergiev’s performance of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings (1945), a valedictory work of great beauty and one that pays homage to Beethoven’s Funeral March from his ‘Eroica’ Symphony. Gergiev’s approach was somewhat more objective than I am used to, building the work as a progression of distinct, tightly-controlled ‘blocks’. After a careful opening, this approach did generate considerable cumulative power and a number of glorious climaxes from the full strings, ending the work strongly. But this was not a performance for the Straussian stylist. There was not enough ebb, flow, and plasticity in the string textures, and certainly not enough tender sweetness in the violins — one of the composer’s hallmarks. As well, the grave re-statements of the Beethoven theme at the end of the work were somewhat too emotional, with too much pull on the rhythms. There is indeed sadness in this work, but it is mainly implied, rather than stated. Strauss is not Tchaikovsky. There were again many excellent contributions from the orchestra’s members, but the initial seating of all the players toward the back of the Orpheum stage seemed curious. For a work that badly needs transparency, the often thick and bass-heavy sound that resulted was far from ideal.
The closing crowd-pleaser was the ever-fresh Tchaikovsky Serenade in C (1880). This was given very much a virtuoso performance, full of verve, and cut and thrust. The first and last movements had a rugged strength and momentum, the usually tender, spring-like waltz was instead given a more deliberate treatment with calculated dynamics, while the normally poetic and personal Elegie hinted at a much larger profile – almost that of a symphonic poem. Everyone loved it. Interestingly, as this work progressed, it came to me that Gergiev’s propulsive and heavy sound really had some of the same feel as another Russian conductor I had heard at the Orpheum. This turned out to be none other than the (late) Rudolph Barshai, the principal conductor of the VSO in the late 1980’s. So, small world!
© Geoffrey Newman 2011