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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Concert Review: Swimming Against the Tide of Protest

The Mariinsky Orchestra (with protestors) returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen 
A sea of notes: Valery Gergiev (left) and Denis Matsuev at play.
Photo by Denis Matsuev © 2016 personal collection of the artist. 
A visit from Valery Gergiev is always an occasion for celebration...and for protest. The conductor and his Mariinsky Orchestra were met at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday by applause inside the historic venue, while the sidewalk outside the lobby filled with placard-carrying citizens, objecting the close ties between Mr. Gergiev and Vladimir Putin, the current president of the Russian Federation. However, there were no politics inside the great hall this night, only a program of 20th century Russian music.

It was ironic that Mr. Gergiev chose to open this, the first of two concerts at Carnegie this week, with the Ninth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Written in 1945, the Ninth drew wrath from Soviet officials who thought its five movements and sardonic tone did little to celebrate their country's hard-fought victory over Nazi Germany. Shostakovich had lived through the siege of Leningrad and dedicated his Seventh and Eighth to the horrors of war. His Ninth went in a very different direction, and ranks as the lightest and yes, the funniest of his fifteen symphonies.

As Mr. Gergiev and his players proved, there is a strong argument for having this work played by a St. Petersburg based orchestra. Mr. Gergiev and his players found bright tones and rhythmic snap in the opening movement, and the long bassoon obbligato that narrates the fourth movement before kicking off the jaunty finale held no terrors for the soloist. One could not help but admire the discipline and skill of the Russian players in the tight corners of this high-speed finale, even if their boss may have missed the sarcastic message written between the staves.

Next, Mr, Gergiev brought out soloist Denis Matsuev to play Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2. Heard less frequently than the famous Third, this work demands that pianist and conductor fuse Prokofiev's early, percussive style with forbidding technical demands. The first movement cadenza alone has enough pianism for an entire album of Liszt works and the orchestral part continually shifts in mood and dynamic. It is not programmed often for a reason.

Mr. Matsuev, whose carriage and athleticism reminds one of the old Soviet Red Army hockey team, proved an able player, thundering through the tense solo passages but also squeezing lyricism from this forbidding granite score. Following this dense but involving performance, he offered two impressive encores: Rachmaninoff's A minor Etude-tableau and more Prokofiev: the last movement of the Sonata No. 7. The first had grace and a lyric, singing arc that veered toward the impressionistic. The second was all steel and clatter, as Mr. Matsuev nearly fell off his bench while bringing off the final, thunderous passage.

The second half featured Alexander Scriabin's Symphony No. 3, The Divine Poem. This is the summit of Scriabin's short orchestral catalogue. It is a work of considerable length: nearly an hour of shifting chromaticism, thunderous themes in the heavy brass, and striving toward the kind of hothouse eroticism that has kept Wagner's Tristan in the repertory. Its three contiguous movements would have one believe that Scriabin paid very little attention to classical form. However, there are passages that take the roles of Scherzo and Adagio, plus that horn idée fixe shining like a lighthouse through the dense fog of orchestration.

Mr. Gergiev and his players clearly believe in this music, and their performance was professional and polished. Audience members felt otherwise, and while they did not leave the Hall in droves, many slipped out as the orchestra churned steadily through Scriabin's sea of notes. Eventually, the work reached safe harbor with not one, not two but three Wagnerian apotheoses, the kind of harp-driven major-key transformation that can bring bliss in the opera house. Those bold enough to endure were rewarded with an encore: Verdi's hard-driving overture to La Forza del Destine. It was a most welcome return to reality. 

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