Gergiev with the LSO in Prokofiev Symphonies and Concertos at Avery Fisher Hall

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Lincoln Center Great Performers Presents

Valery Gergiev, photo Anna Eriksson

Valery Gergiev, photo Anna Eriksson

Russian Dreams: The Music of Sergei Prokofiev
Monday, March 23, 2009 at 8:00
Avery Fisher Hall (Broadway at 65th Street)
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Vladimir Feltsman, piano

All-Prokofiev program
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 (“Classical”)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op. 111

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 8:00
Avery Fisher Hall (Broadway at 65th Street)
Pre-concert lecture, A Tale of Three Cities: Petrograd, Paris, Moscow, by Harlow Robinson at 6:45, Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse (Rose Building, 65th Street at Amsterdam, 10th Floor)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Vadim Repin, violin

All-Prokofiev program
Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19
Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

Sunday, March 29, 2009, from 1:00 to 2:30
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse (Rose Building, 65th Street at Amsterdam, 10th Floor)
20th-Century Master: Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphonic Legacy
Panel Discussion
Harlow Robinson, moderator
with Anne-Marie McDermott and Peter Laki

Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 3:00
Avery Fisher Hall (Broadway at 65th Street)
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexei Volodin, piano

All-Prokofiev program
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44
Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 53
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 112 (revised version)

Monday, March 30, 2009 at 8:00
Avery Fisher Hall (Broadway at 65th Street)
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Vadim Repin, violin

All-Prokofiev program
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 47 (original version)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 10

Now that Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra have completed the first half of their traversal of Prokofiev’s symphonies and a selection of his concerti for piano and violin, one can catch one’s breath, assimilate some of the rarely-heard music that has been played, and ponder this exciting new partnership of orchestra and conductor. It is, after all, Gergiev’s first tour with the LSO as principle conductor, and, since Prokofiev, ever versatile, explored so many different strategies of structure, texture, and orchestration, these concerts are a remarkable opportunity to become familiar with Gergiev’s way with the London musicians. Not that “familiar” is quite an appropriate word: Mr. Gergiev has a unique gift for surprising his audiences—for making them gasp in admiration at some unexpected turn or gesture. His concerts are always an adventure.

Prokofiev’s symphonies are no less of an adventure. Like Brahms, he broached fundamentally different forms,techniques, and states of mind in each symphony. What’s more, as I discussed in my account of the Bard Music Festival, some of Prokofiev’s most original and important work is the least known today. This stems from the circumstance that his career spanned pre-Soviet Russia, the United States in the early twenties, then Paris, and finally Stalin’s Soviet Union; and he encountered opposition and disappointment in each. The Revolution brought about the cancellation of the premiere of his First Symphony in 1917 (as well as that of his First Violin Concerto, which was on the second program). Eventually the symphony, as one of Prokofiev’s most accessible works, became one of his most popular, notably in America. (The American Prokofiev and the Russian Prokofiev do not by any means overlap more than here and there.) In the Second Symphony (1924-5), with which he intended to make a splash in Paris, he abandoned the classicism, brevity, and accessibility of the first in favor of an unconventional two-movement structure (a sonata form followed by variations), massive dissonant chords, and dense textures. Poor orchestral playing, the acoustics of the Paris Opera, and perhaps a certain forced excess of ambition ensured that the symphony received a mixed, mostly unenthusiastic response, and it has never found a place in the repertory. At the end of his life Prokofiev planned to revise it, but he didn’t live to finish the job.

Of his remaining symphonies only the Fifth, with its sprawling panorama of the USSR in wartime, is played with any regularity; yet, they are all compelling. In the third and the fourth he recycled music from stage works: his opera, The Fiery Angel, which was never performed in his lifetime, and the ballet, The Prodigal Son, respectively. Koussevitzky had commissioned the Fourth for the 50th anniversary of the BSO in 1930. Its premiere was not a great success. Prokofiev wrote the last three symphonies for Soviet taste, if the political machinations of the Stalinist cultural committees can be called taste. He was most comfortable with their requirements (above all popular accessibility and a triumphant, demotic finale) in the Fifth, in which they led him back to an enriched classicism. The Sixth and the Seventh, however, are darker. In the finale of the Sixth, a brooding, allusive work, Prokofiev wrests the conventional major chord at the very last minute from passages expressing wild despair, and the Seventh ends in the elegiac mood of its first movement. Prokofiev heeded advice that was offered him and revised the ending with a jaunty tune from another part of the work. This, fortunately, is rarely performed.

Gergiev’s approach to Prokofiev is hardly unfamiliar to western audiences, since, he and the LSO produced a boxed set of live performances for Philips in 2005. In these concerts, however, he manages to keep his sense of discovery and the freshness of the orchestra’s playing as alive as ever. Both Gergiev and the LSO, moreover, and no strangers to Avery Fisher Hall, and they negotiated its acoustics brilliantly. In massive tutti, there was both depth and coherence in their attacks and their balances, not so much from any imposed external discipline as from the musicians’ engagement in the music, as it follows its harmonic argument and mood shifts. The mass and bite of the attacks in the full orchestra or in the strings or brass were hair-raising in themselves and always in the right place. Gergiev produced a stunning effect with Prokofiev’s Luftpausen. His baton-less technique seems more focussed on expression and color, but his sense of structure and shape is unerring. Provided one accepts his general view of these works—and I have no trouble with that—there is not much to object to in these thrilling performances.In the First or the Fifth (which we haven’t heard yet) there are musicians who take a more classical approach, with tidier execution and more refined textures, as if Prokofiev were more of an emulator of Stravinsky than he actually was. The playing of the LSO was not as refined as it is under Haitink or Davis, but they are still the same world-class orchestra. The blazing dissonances in the winds and the anthracite grittiness of the lower strings and brass could not be more eloquent in expressing Prokofiev’s pain-laden rhetoric. Gergiev creates a feeling of spontaneity and an intensity we associate with Furtwängler or early Walter, but it is built on solid ground. His work with the LSO in this uncompromising approach to this often difficult and extremely varied music confirms him as one of our great conductors. I also admire his predecessor, Sir Colin Davis, as one the greats of his generation. The clean ensemble and color he elicits from the LSO and the lucidity he brings to Mozart, Berlioz, and Sibelius alike make it easy for some to underestimate for its lack of pretension, but I have never been tempted to do so. Gergiev brings a significant change, but, I believe, it will be good for the LSO.

The first two concerts included Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto and his First Violin Concerto and with them two exceptional soloists, the pianist Vladimir Feltsman and violinist Vadim Repin. Neither work can even be approached without consummate virtuosity. Feltsman, although long a New Yorker and a denizen of the American musical scene, brought a characteristically Russian concentration and business-like lack of pretension to his execution of Prokofiev’s cruelest hoops and ladders. All details in place, he focused on pulse and expression, while avoiding distracting games with color. Along with the power and energy of his performance, I could imagine him a chess master as well. Insight and purpose were apparent in the slightest detail of his performance. Repin also faced a virtuosic work, but a more lyrical one, which called for delicate nuance and color along with an occasional flight of display. In Gergiev there cannot have been a more attentive and flexible accompanist in either concerto.

These four concerts have already given ample evidence of the extreme range of Prokofiev’s imagination, which at times clashes with itself, or at the very least strikes us as contradictory. This is most astonishingly apparent in three of the works he produced in the chaos of the First World War and the growing revolution: the First Symphony, the First Violin Concerto, and the Cantata Semero Ikh (“They are seven.”). In the symphony and the concerto Prokofiev endeavored to put the excesses of post-Wagnerian romanticism to rest—the symphony through its classicizing style and the concerto through an introspective, quasi-romantic vein, colored by Debussy and Scriabin. In the cantata, a setting of the theosophist poet Bal’mont’s Russian version of an Akkadian incantation, he was clearly still working with inspiration from the heady days of the Russian Silver Age, which was rapidly coming to a close. None of these works showed the slightest concern with the political upheavals of the time.

If there are cracks in the First Symphony’s classical vessel, Gergiev reached straight out for them. Using a full complement of strings, Gergiev steered a course that duly observed the neat, classical articulation of his stylish tunes, but also undermined them by making the most of passing dissonances and the rich, dark sonorities from the lower strings. In Gergiev’s view there is constant tension between the chosen classical style of the work and the modern vagaries of its harmony. This established a communality between it and the violin concerto.

Prokofiev’s ambition was apparent enough in these spare, anti-romantic works, in which he was daring to point to the future in his own way, but it was admittedly getting a little pushy in the Second Symphony, and this may have ultimately been the reason for its failure. Prokofiev may have just been trying too hard, and his sophisticated audience was put off by it. Harlow Robinson called it Prokofiev’s “lost” symphony. In his lecture he asked for a show of hands, if anyone had heard the work in the concert hall, and I saw none raised. (I didn’t raise mine either.) On the other hand, the Second Symphony proved to be a constantly absorbing, challenging work. If it is ambitious, it is ambitious in entirely the right way. It is flawlessly constructed, and not a bar is empty or uninteresting—I wish I could say the same of Romeo and Juliet. Its relentless ostinato is reminiscent of Semero Ikh, which is a magnificent piece. In the symphony Prokofiev brings it from the world of ancient chant to the machine age, recalling on the way the manner of Stravinsky and Les Sept. The French element is unmistakable. Gergiev plunged into the symphony’s vast range of sonority with full commitment. He certainly won over this listener.

In the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, which are more contained but equally important works, Gergiev’s combination of passion, structure, and clarity were also totally persuasive. The Sixth, which Prokofiev first wanted to dedicate to the memory of Beethoven, takes an particularly allusive course. Hommages to Tchaikovsky and Mahler weave in and out of the otherwise characteristically Prokofievan score. As well-put-together as it is—there is constant feedback between rolling sextuple tunes, sharp outbursts, and brutal silences—the Sixth can only be bracing, but it is also a very sad work—tortured at the very end. One wonders how the symphony was performed at all. Of course the rituals of Soviet criticism were effective at clearing the Soviet air, if nothing else. Today we can relate to this masterpiece as one of Prokofiev’s most heartfelt expressions, if partially hidden under Stalin-era gestures and indirection. The Seventh is a tamer and more accessible work, although Prokofiev’s stated intention of writing a children’s symphony seems once again to be Stalin-era “irony.” (On the other hand, it seems that one of the signal virtues of Soviet artistic policy was the avoidance of condescension to children.) Here Prokofiev’s despair emerges in a more lyrical, elegiac vein. Gergiev approached each work with a keen sense of their individuality of mood, expression, and environment.

The second pair of concerts was introduced by a panel discussion moderated by Harlow Robinson, who wrote the program notes for all the concerts. Among the various contributions, Peter Laki provided a fine comparison of the first and second versions of the Fourth Symphony, generally supporting the more common view that the more expansive second version was superior, an instance of the positive influence of Soviet official style on his work, a trend which was to continue to develop up through his Fifth Symphony. Anne-Marie McDermott, who has recorded and extensively performed Prokofiev’s solo piano works, gave a brilliant survey of his piano sonatas. Of course the sonatas did not figure in these concerts, but her insights into these works, both in her commentaries and from the keyboard, were most welcome.

The Sunday afternoon concert began with Prokofiev’s ferocious Third Symphony. Gergiev attacked the work with tremendous drive and  full textures: rich strings and massive brass, which were almost frighteningly harsh at the right moments. I have already discussed in my review of Leon Botstein’s excellent performance of the work at the Bard Music Festival how Prokofiev adapted music from his opera, The Fiery Angel, in it. In either format, this is some of Prokofiev’s most intense music. In the opera, which is about two and a half hours long, it has more scope to unfold around the desperate actions of the characters. Concentrated into symphonic form, it becomes compact and brutally direct. While Botstein’s cooler approach and the more lucid acoustics of Sosnoff Auditorium at Bard unravelled its dense textures somewhat, and gave the audience some intellectual distance on the work. Gergiev with his thicker textures focussed directly on its emotional marrow, which he brought forth through the eloquent phrasing and stunning colors. This was a powerful reading, which I shan’t forget any time soon, but I was glad to have been introduced to it by Dr. Botstein.

Prokofiev wrote his Fourth Piano Concerto (1931) for Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian virtuoso who lost his right arm in World War I and commissioned a series of works for the left hand, the best known of which is Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. Prokofiev’s concerto seems so fiendlishly difficult that it makes Ravel’s appear simple. This may have been one reason why Wittgenstein rejected the work. Like Prokofiev’s other works of this period, it is sophisticated, motivically and texturally complex, and uncompromising. He never made his projected two-hand version, and the version he presented to Wittgenstein in 1931 was not performed until 1956. Alexei Volodin gave the work an extremely polished reading, carrying the audience away with his extrordinary technique. This was high virtuosismo, but Volodin made no attempt to conceal the effort that went into its execution. Prokofiev’s left-handed piano part is so demanding and so elaborate that it presented the danger of throwing the pianist off-balance. Our two God-given hands function as a kind of scales, after all.

Gergiev jumped ahead to Prokofiev’s Soviet style by concluding the concert with the second version of the Fourth Symphony (Op. 112, 1947, that is, after the Sixth Symphony. It was not performed until 1957.). One cannot help even a slight feeling of relief after the density and harshness of Prokofiev’s French period. In this expanded, smoothed-out version, the fourth is entirely convincing, and it is easy enough to enter into its spirit, which is more elegiac than the first version. The thrust of Peter Laki’s talk and general opinion accept that the second version is an improvement, but after hearing it at the beginning of the final concert, I was not so sure. The first version is tighter, more nervous and forceful than the post-war version, and I have to confess a personal fascination with Prokofiev’s work of the late twenties and early thirties. Like the Third, the Fourth was adapted from a stage work, The Prodigal Son, a ballet. Koussevitzky had commissioned it for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was sorely displeased to find that Prokofiev was recycling music for this important commission. The conductor’s ego aside, it is clear that there was a lot more to Prokofiev’s reworking of stage music into symphonic form than mere expediency. Both the Third and the Fourth in both its versions are so compellingly argued, that it should be clear that Prokofiev saw the symphonic potential in this music as he composed it.

In this final evening, unless my ears were deceiving me, Gergiev changed his tack slightly, producing leaner textures from the LSO, which suited the first version of the Fourth particularly well, and, for that matter, the Second Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony also, which was resplendent in its vast variety of texture and color. Interestingly, Gergiev’s reading of the Fifth, as colorful as if was, seemed to skirt the familiar programmatic implications of the music and firmly asserted its construction as absolute music—a pure symphony. For the concerto Vadim Repin was back, fully equal to the challenges of this fiercely difficult work. Repin’s manner was relaxed and unpretentious, but his absolutely assured playing had the aristocratic poise of an Oistrakh. All the magnificent solo performances were generously followed by an encore. In this concert Repin joined Andrew Haveron, the guest leader of the LSO, for a movement from Prokofiev’s Sonata in C for Two Violins. The two made music splendidly together and both seemed to be equally delighted with the collaboration. Encores were even more plentiful, since Mr. Gergiev ended each concert with a revisitation of Romeo and Juliet. While one could appreciate the gesture, I found this less welcome than the solo encores, since the familiar music tended to suppress my memory of the final works on the programs. Those early moments when the flow of music played lapses into memory are crucial.

The series could not have been a more impressive harbinger of Gergiev’s tenure in London or a more eloquent testimony to Prokofiev’s tragic artistic life.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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