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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Concert Review: Rushing Into the Stratosphere

The Mariinsky Orchestra with Denis Matsuev at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Denis Matsuev returned to Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night.
Photo ©
The second of the Mariinsky Orchestra's two concerts this week at Carnegie Hall was in some ways similar to the first.. Outside, a dozen protesters appeared again, chanting slogans about music director Valery Gergiev and his close connection with the current government of Russia. Inside, cameras were mounted in the rear of the parquet and on stage left to capture Mr. Gergiev and his forces, in the first digital broadcast of an orchestral concert from Carnegie Hall on Medici.TV.

Perhaps with that web audience in mind, Wednesday's program selections were a little more fan-friendly. For this concert, Mr. Gergiev chose two sardonic works from 20th century Russian composers: a Concerto for Orchestra by Rodion Shchedrin and a late symphony by Serge Prokofiev, the steel-fingered pianist who returned to Russia in 1936 only to die on the same day as dictator Josef Stalin. All this heavy humor was lightened with a dose of Tchaikovsky, in this case the rarely played Piano Concerto No. 2.

Mr. Gergiev continued his obsessive exploration of Shchedrin's music. Here, his forces played the composer's first Concerto for Orchestra, subtitled Naughty Limericks. Dating from 1967, a period that found Shchedrin churning out music to please the artistic taste of the Party, it featured a panoply of virtuoso parts for trumpet, upright bass and woodwinds. Despite all these flourishes, this piece seemed to go nowhere. In fact, it went nowhere fast, winding itself up into a dissonant rising chord and vanishing quickly from the memory.

The pianist Denis Matsuev seemed an incongruous choice for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2, a work requiring delicacy and dexterity combined with pure technique. Here, the imposing Siberian played with considerable restraint, hammering out the crescendi with a burly enthusiasm and displaying a smooth and occasionally singing legato against the orchestral accompaniment. The little trio that opens the second movement, a small "triple concerto" for piano, violin and viola had genuine charm.

That charm vanished with the finale, a fast movement taken at a pell-mell tempo by Mr. Gergiev. Pianist and conductor sounded raced each other to the finish, with Mr. Matsuev's playing growing more urgent and less accurate. This was seat-of-the-pants stuff, not perfect music making but the sort of visceral performance that (for good or for ill) remains a Gergiev trademark. Mr. Matsuev returned for two encores. The Rachmaninoff Etude-tableau No. 2 featured his most lyrical playing of the evening. The Scriabin D# minor Etude returned to his percussive, piano-pounding style.

Serge Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 remains the composer's most popular symphony from the later half of his career, a closely argued powerful work whose muscular orchestration belies the speed at which it was created (Prokofiev wrote the work in less than two weeks.) Mr. Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces tore into the first movement, juxtaposing the slow opening theme with the main Andante, taken at a stately tempo. Prokofiev's thick-sounding but surprisingly economical orchestrations sprung to life at a crook of Mr. Gergiev's finger.

Those curled, crooked digits brought the Scherzo to life in a brusque rhythm, with the sturdy rhythms of the outer section framing a gorgeous central episode, showcasing the rich, warm tone of the Mariinsky players. The Adagio followed, a dreamy main theme that increased in Tristan-like dramatic tension, slowly wrenched itself into an anguished forte before unwinding back to its original slow theme.

Prokofiev wrote this symphony in 1944 as the Soviet Army was finally driving back the Nazi invasion of Russia. The work's final movement builds from a solemn cello theme to a grand pseudo-military climax, but is belied by Prokofiev's innate and sometimes unnerving sense of humor. The Mariinsky players shifted into a chamber-like texture before the triumphant theme returned, backward-sounding and sardonic, the sound of the composer's bitter wit. As a palliative and a farewell to their Carnegie audience, the Mariinsky added one encore: the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.

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