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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Concert Review: From Exile to Silence

The Mariinsky Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev. Photo by Alexander Shapunov for the Mariinsky Theater.
The Mariinsky Orchestra, currently on tour in North America, returned to New York on Tuesday night. So did the protesters, lining the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall. About a dozen in number, they held up placards in English and Cyrillic. They shouted at concert-goers, handed out fliers and chanted slogans. Their issue: the close connection between Mariinsky artistic director Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Putin, the Russian political leader whose 2014 invasion of the Ukraine and anti-homosexual agenda were the twin subjects of the protest.

That it has become impossible to write about Mr. Gergiev and his orchestra without mentioning Mr. Putin made Tuesday night's musical selections resonate with the bitter taste of irony. For the first of the Mariinsky's two Carnegie concerts this week, Mr. Gergiev programmed the brilliant,  anti-authoritarian and rarely performed Symphony No. 4 by Dmitri Shostakovich. The work was paired with a concerto written by Serge Prokofiev during his self-imposed exile from Russia, the challenging yet popular Piano Concerto No. 3..

The concert opened with the Prokofiev, featuring soloist Behzod Abduraimov, a 23-year old pianist from Uzbekistan who proved capable of the steely rhythmic control and rigorous technique needed to play this challenging work. Mr. Abduraimov had to contend with Mr. Gergiev in the first movement, and an overloud orchestra that occasionally swamped the piano part. By the time of the recapitulation, Mr. Gergiev adjusted and damped his volume, allowing the last section of the movement with its intricate writing for woodwinds and spectacular cadenzas for the soloist to go off in an explosive and entertaining manner.

Prokofiev's preoccupation with symphonic form extends to the slow movement, an elaborate and pseudo-classical theme and variations that has its origin in a simple woodwind melody. This lagged in its later pages, with Mr. Gergiev and Mr. Abduraimov prioritizing lyricism over forward progress. The finale was better, a showcase for this young artist's formidable technique and a return of the orchestra to full enthusiasm--and full volume. Met with acclaim, Mr. Abduraimov responded with a Tchaikovsky encore that showed the other side of his playing, sweet and lyric with a touch of melancholy to spare.

The Fourth Symphony was written in 1936, a year of great crisis in Shostakovich's life. As he worked on this piece, his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk drew the direct wrath of Josef Stalin at the composer. This took the form of an infamous diatribe ("Muddle instead of Music") in Pravda. Shaken, Shostakovich withdrew the three-movement Fourth from rehearsals, locking the score in his desk drawer. Some of the themes and ideas were recycled into the composer's Fifthm but the work remained in its own silent exile until its eventual premiere in 1961.

Conducting a full-force Mariinsky Orchestra (the Fourth calls for eight horns, six percussionists and quadruple winds and brass--however the string forces were slightly reduced), Mr. Gergiev led a performance that sobbed and shook with emotion, yet retained the work's irony and cheerful destruction of other musical forms. Shostakovich was pushing the envelope here, with a massive 30-minute opening movement that starts as a tramping dirge before veering into uncertain ensembles for groups of woodwinds and strings. The orchestra goes to war with itself, with sections almost shouting each other down in a Mahlerian debate, the tramping figure pitted against waltzing strings and woodwinds that sound as if they are playing in a small Russian village band.

A central Scherzo was more conventional, with passionate playing from the low winds and horns interacting with dancing strings. This is the eye of the hurricane in this piece, with the third movement carrying the storm's most punishing impact. The finale opens with a straight-up Mahler tribute, a doleful totenfeier that could have emerged from an early symphony, which gives way to a sort of Shostakovich "jukebox" section, referencing all the musical styles of his early career: jazz, waltzes, even a quote from Lady Macbeth.

Then a brief pause, followed by two timpanists pounding away as the brass blares in C Major. Considering that the Fourth is in C minor, the jarring choice of this key causes  dissonance and terror, but in a bright and cheery fashion that parodies at the false official optimism of the Stalin years. As played by the Mariinsky forces, this was simply music of cold terror, the sound of authority destroying all musical forms in the name of its political goals. Afterward, ashes, the themes left in rubble and uncertainty with a quiet, funeral close: strings, harps, and celesta playing a series of slow, fading chords. The work ended in a deathly silence.

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