Review: Valery Gergiev Conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra in an All-Russian Program at Disney Hall

November 2, 2017 | By Henry Schlinger | Category: Classical Music and Opera

This has been a month of visiting orchestras at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Two Sundays ago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed (see http://culturespotla.com/2017/10/review-riccardo-muti-conducts-the-chicago-symphony-in-brahms-at-disney-hall/). On Monday night the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was in town (see http://culturespotla.com/2017/10/review-zubin-mehta-conducts-the-israel-philharmonic-and-yefim-bronfman/). And last night it was the Mariinsky Orchestra (formerly the Kirov Orchestra during the Soviet era) led by its music director, Valery Gergiev.

Gergiev programmed a dense concert of Russian masterpieces, including the Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70 by Shostakovich; the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 by Prokofiev; and the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 43, “The Divine Poem,” by Alexander Scriabin. It was all Russian, right down to the two encores by soloist and orchestra — and the audience, which was just as Russian as the audience for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was Jewish.

Gergiev opened the concert with the Shostakovich. He stood on the floor and not a podium, and as he conducted with a baton that couldn’t have been more than 6 inches long, he flailed his arms in a way that resembled the late Joe Cocker. Leonard Bernstein described the Shostakovich Ninth as the lightest of Shostakovich’s symphonies and also the most Haydnesque in terms of classical sonata form (of the first movement) with Haydn’s brand of humor, which he described as “hilarious,” “circusy” and full of jokes. Each movement also features a lengthy solo by a woodwind, the piccolo in the first movement, the clarinet and flute in the second movement, and an extended bassoon solo in the fourth movement (Largo). All the soloists played fabulously, especially the bassoonist.

The first movement is full of jokes played, in part, by the piccolo and the trombone. The second movement, as Bernstein states, is jokeless. But the third movement, Presto, introduces more jokes, including a very short section with a trumpet solo sounding like a toreador being announced. There is even a short section in the Finale where the flutes, piccolo and oboes play over trumpets and snare drum, reminiscent of a John Phillip Souza march.

In a normal concert, the Shostakovich would have been the final piece in the first half, but not in this concert. It was just the opener for the Prokofiev with 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition winner Denis Matsuev as soloist.

As with other concertos by Prokofiev, the second piano concerto is not a lengthy piece, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in density. It is a very demanding piece for the soloist, requiring that he or she play like Prokofiev did. It is a dark piece with a thundering cadenza early in the first movement. It is full of dissonances with rays of Prokofievian melodies peeking out of the darkness here and there.

Matsuev almost goose-stepped onto the stage, and when he hit the final note of the Finale, he jumped up as if that were a natural part of playing the note. He was all energy, and he played the concerto like he was trying to wake Prokofiev from the dead, as if to say, “Look what I can do with your concerto!” He definitely showed the pianistic skills that won him the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998 and managed to match the volume of the orchestra. The overall performance was a tour de force.

The audience brought him out for an encore for which he chose The Music Box, Op. 32, by Anatoly Liadov, played lightly and quietly on the highest keys of the register — sounding just like a music box — which was the antithesis of the dark, brooding Prokofiev with its heavy lower-register passages.

The concert concluded with the third symphony by Scriabin. The symphony, which is more like a tone poem, is written in three movements played without interruption, and is a lush neo-Romantic contrast to the more modern-sounding works by Prokofiev, who was just 20 years younger than Scriabin, but who outlived him by almost 40 years. The “Poem” is introduced by two themes that recur throughout the piece, and while the “Poem” is somewhat self-indulgent, it still has some beautiful melodies and lyrical writing and lush orchestration.

The audience rose to their feet and cheered the orchestra after each piece and were rewarded after the Scriabin with a favorite encore of Gergiev, the “Pas de Deux” from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.

Last night, with game seven of the World Series being played just down the road from Disney Hall, the Mariinsky orchestra played an impressive and demanding program masterfully. Right out of the gate with the Shostakovich they showed why they are such an exciting orchestra. This very Russian of Russian orchestras (they are one of the oldest musical institutions in Russia) playing in this most American of American cities made everyone forget the political tensions between the two countries and hit a grand slam home run on a night when the Dodgers could have used one.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

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