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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Concert Review: Dionysius Rampant

Valery Gergiev conducts Beethoven and Ravel.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev at the helm of his Munich forces.
Photo by Chris Christodoulou at the BBC proms © 2016 The British Broadcasting Company.
An evening with Valery Gergiev on the podium is never dull. The Russian maestro returned to Carnegie Hall on Monday night with his new orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and a conservative but lucid program pairing the works of Ravel and Beethoven. This concert marked the first appearance of Mr. Gergiev as the music director of the Munich forces, although he did substitute duty for an ailing Lorin Maazel two years ago.



The concert opened with "La Valse," Ravel's fifteen-minute exploration of orchestration in triple-time. Conceived as a ballet, this is a companion piece to Bolero in that it focuses almost entirely on orchestration over development of thematic ideas, pointing a way forward to the minimalists of the 1960s and '70s. Mr. Gergiev led a charming if slightly ragged performance, exhorting his players in the swirling, eventually manic dance before crashing the orchestra to a halt.

The orchestra was joined by Pierre-Laurent Aimard for the next Ravel work: the jazzy, American-inspired Piano Concerto in G. Mr. Aimard, whose long resume started with Pierre Boulez, gave a performance where the dazzling flashes of brilliance were shot through with a vital intent and soulful expression. This performance moved beyond virtuosity, particularly in the slow middle movement where Mr. Aimard traded laments with an eloquent English horn.

Mr. Gergiev may not be the first name one associates with the swing rhythms and tight-but-loose accompaniment that winds under the sinuous solo line of this work, but he proved an able accompanist, content to take the back seat and let Mr. Aimard drive the work forward. The Munich players' expertise helped, particularly with the tricky cross-rhythms of the third movement. Mr. Aimard was exuberant here, taking a joy in his musicianship that extended to the brilliant Debussy etude ("Pour les huit doigts") that followed.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 Eroica can not be overstated in its importance and influence on the centuries of music that followed. Mr. Gergiev and his Munich forces seemed all too aware of this, leading a first movement of boldness, sweep and power. The maestro's exertions were audible too as he pushed his strings for more energy on the downbeats, drawing forth the blooming development and mighty fugal figures, the sound of Beethoven unlocking great cosmic secrets before the even more impressive recapitulation.

This was not a neat and pressed performance. There were moments of diminuendo and accelerando that were entirely a product of Mr. Gergiev's baton. But it was exciting and alive, especially in the long funeral march that makes up the second movement. Here, Mr. Gergiev showed how the dour, funereal cellos and basses presage the marching grail knights of Wagner's Parsifal before letting the horns loose in an anguished cry to heaven.

The Munich horn players had plenty of lip for their outburst in the Scherzo, an exposed unison passage that can break a performance. Here, it sallied forth smoothly. Mr. Gergiev chose a brisk pace for the theme and variations that followed, racing through the ground bass and heroic thematic statement to get to the grand, final revelation of the work. This last section and the rapid coda that followed were a fitting cap to a performance that had both academic rigor and wild emotion: the elusive chemistry needed to make Beethoven work.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.