Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra in San Francisco play Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with Denis Matsuev and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15

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Valery Gergiev, photo Anna Eriksson

Mariinsky Orchestra
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Monday, March 22, 2010

Valery Gergiev, principal conductor
Denis Matsuev, pianist

Berlioz, Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Opus 30
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 15 in A major, Opus 141

This week, the touring Mariinsky Orchestra, led by the ubiquitous Valery Gergiev, performed two evenings at Davies Hall in San Francisco. The first program, which I did not hear, was devoted to Prokofiev ballets and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The second, more intriguing to me, presented Shostakovich’s enigmatic final symphony, as well as an opportunity to assess the Rachmaninoff artistry of Denis Matsuev, who is being hailed these days as a pianist in the Horowitz tradition.

Valery Gergiev’s program powered-up effectively with Berlioz’ Royal Hunt and Storm, from Les Troyens. This is, for all practical purposes, a short tone poem within the opera’s fourth act, describing a country scene interrupted by weather, while a hunt can be heard in the distance. Although the music probably will not end up on too many desert island favorites lists, it is a creditable early effort in the “thunderstorm sweepstakes” initiated by Beethoven’s Pastorale and Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphonies, (and surely won ultimately by Richard Strauss’ 1914 Alpine downpour).

The Berlioz represented my first live exposure to this youthful orchestra, and I was immediately struck by its deep but grainy sonority. Like Colin Davis, who revels in a heavy foundational sound, Gergiev clearly balances his players from the bottom up, yet this is no velvety Bavarian Radio Orchestra. There is sand in the chocolate, and when the horns enter, they are remarkably heavy and a bit rough, as though hammered out of thick brass by hand. A touch of Soviet era vibrato still can be detected in their manner of play, though the trumpet “tizziness” which used to indicate you were listening to Svetlanov or Kondrashin with a USSR orchestra, is now mercifully gone.

Gergiev’s Mariinsky woodwinds fit these bold primary notions of sonority to a T, though they are less notably avian than they might be in a Czech ensemble. The percussion is aggressive. The paradox of this orchestra is that, while its playing is rounded and extremely accurate, you would never call it refined. It can spin a dreamworld with the best of them, yet sheer vitality and striving for bigness defeats any attempt to maintain a perfect surface. In the Berlioz, for instance, the supposedly distant hunting horns were almost in one’s face. In much of the Russian repertoire this can be an advantage. Historically Russians have not been encouraged in politeness.

That said, and questions of whether he performs too much aside, Maestro Gergiev radiates a different kind of subtlety to his players–a quivering sensitivity to the electrical aliveness of the music. I doubt he gives many stillborn performances. The conducting technique resulting from this way of communicating the music bears a moment’s description.

Gergiev is slightly taller than average, so he can manage standing on the stage directly, without a podium. Whenever a conductor does this (Efrem Kurtz never used one….Harnoncourt seldom does), a certain amount of egalitarian gobbledegook tends to get spouted about facing the musicians as an equal, and so on. But it was perfectly clear to me on Monday night that, if Gergiev had in fact been standing on a podium, he would have repeatedly fallen off of it!

There are other conductors who levitate, of course. Bernstein was famous for it, and Sixten Ehrling once almost took off during Respighi’s Roman Festivals with the Cincinnati Symphony at Carnegie Hall. But Gergiev is the only finger-flutterer I have ever seen. He beats time with the heel of his hand alone, palm up, no baton. This leaves the fingers to flutter at high speed above the fray, like feelers on an insect or an undersea creature, conveying the slightest change in nervous energy.

Initially, I found this horribly distracting, and, in fact, the man sitting behind me burst into laughter at Gergiev’s first downbeat… rather too loudly, I thought. Gradually, though, I realized that the fluttering had a lot to do with maintaining ebb and flow and achieving a soft landing for chord entrances. The result, despite what must surely be an overworked schedule, was an orchestra which seemed to play constantly shifting dynamics within a single phrase and never appeared to be on automatic pilot.

I was nevertheless surprised to find how much freshness could be heard in the evening’s next work, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3, whose first movement I once experienced indifferently conducted six times in a row by James DePriest at the 1976 Montreal Piano Competition. And I was delighted to see Denis Matsuev turn out to be a mature, collaborative musician, rather than a purveyor of  “barbaric splendor.”

The genius of the last three Rachmaninoff concerti, I think, is their avoidance of unnecessary musical opposition between the pianist and the orchestra. Historically, a standard concerto can be a sort of static sports competition, where each side takes turns making an un-idiomatic stab at the music of the other. Frequently, as a result, the pianist finds himself playing big block-like orchestral themes that don’t really sound right on the piano, and the audience gets stuck waiting for two of everything. Virtuosity for its own sake becomes the reward for putting up with this slightly awkward state of affairs.

Some composers, like Debussy, with his Fantasie for piano and orchestra, and D’Indy, in his Symphonie Cévénole, do achieve a more unified, forward-moving integration with the soloist, but at the cost of pyrotechnics. Indeed, neither piece is considered a concerto, for this very reason.

The Rachmaninoff Third, by contrast, is propelled, indeed almost rolled forward by seemingly effortless virtuosic pianism. It seldom stops moving, and Rachmaninoff’s genius is to have found a pianistic way of writing for the orchestra, so that when the orchestra contributes, it does not ever seem to be restating something, but rather adding to the texture and helping the music along. You never feel: this would be music…if only it weren’t a concerto!

It would be hard to imagine making a better impression with this work than Denis Matsuev did on Monday night. Matsuev bears an uncanny facial and tonsorial (though not musical) resemblance to Van Cliburn. Indeed, if you imagine him as a more macho Cliburn, with the gentle-giant physical quality of Ernie Els, the South African golfer, you are probably close to getting it right. Like Harnoncourt, who is similarly big, Matsuev tends to convey just a touch of Adams-family lugubriousness, as he sits down to the piano, perhaps wondering whether he’ll break it!

No need to fear. Though touted as a bit of a new Horowitz, Matsuev turned out to be an effortlessly fast but ruminative pianist, his sonority less about shards of steel and ball bearings than marble and pearls. Back in the LP era, Byron Janis set what was probably the benchmark for metallic excitement and speed in this work. (These days, even Stephen Hough takes it more slowly.)

Matsuev’s base tempi were fairly similar to Janis’, but his sonority sounded heavier, and in other respects he turned out to be a more romantic pianist, though less poetically so than Evgeny Kissin, whose playing carries more light and shade.

Like Kissin, Matsuev performs the alternative and extended first movement cadenza, managing an enormous weight and volume of sound, but happily, without turning the musical scene into a construction site. There was no pile-driving for its own sake, but this was still a big conception of the piece.

In the remaining two movements, a close and exciting collaboration between conductor and soloist reflected a meeting of the minds, or at least an extended tour. Gergiev demonstrated by example that there is more to the quiet orchestral doings in the slow movement than mere accompaniment. By the conclusion of the concerto, one might have been forgiven for thinking San Francisco a Russian city, so volcanic was the audience’s delight.

For an encore, Denis Matsuev lumbered back to the piano, looked down at it doubtfully, then said, with an ironic twinkle, “I play for encore piece by Liadov………’Music’..he hesitated, almost contemptuously….’BOX'”! He then sat as though to thread a needle, and with Rachmaninof’f’s cymbal crashes still ringing in one’s ears, proceeded to deliver a perfect, tiny miniature, sounding like ….just that. The audience laughed its way to the doors.

There wouldn’t be much laughter after intermission. Despite opening moments of seeming good cheer, the Shostakovich 15th Symphony, which followed the interval, is on a short list of devastatingly sad works written by composers to commemorate their own approaching deaths. It is also a classic in the music of political protest.

Mahler, we know, wrote into the first movement of his 9th Symphony the off-kilter heart rhythm which would kill him. It is a great statement, but it ends at the personal. Joseph Suk movingly taps out the atrial fibrillation which felled his 27 year-old wife in the Asrael symphony, but does not predict his own demise. Neither work has political implications.

Shostakovich, also suffering from heart disease, weaves his heart seizures and rhythmic problems into this symphony, with ever increasing intensity, until you realize that he is telling you two parallel stories: his own and that of the Soviet regime.

The imagery he uses is ingenious. Under the guise of  describing a shop of mechanical toys coming to life, like those he knew in childhood, he composes at first the innocent whirring and tinkling of a few wind-up tin soldiers. We hear a tiny trumpet rendition of the”Lone Ranger” theme from the William Tell. The atmosphere is hopeful, childlike and idealistic—-or is it?

Before too long, though, something has gone very wrong in the toy shop. The toys start to go in every direction. They bump into each other robotically. In one ingenious mechanical-sounding passage, you can hear their arms and legs cycling impotently as they get stuck against each other. By the end of the movement, there is nothing but bluster and mechanical dysfunction. Indeed, for the rest of the symphony, everything that winds up, winds down. To say that is almost to describe the symphony. And the regime…

The second movement opens, as though to say “We’re still waiting….”, with the eerie “Palace Square” chorale theme from Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony. This transforms itself quickly into the sad opening of William Tell, now beyond lugubrious. No more “Lone Ranger.” Nothing good is happening here, clearly.

We hear in this movement the first sign of Shostakovich’s heart problem, a dissonant “seizure motif”‘ in the high winds. As the symphony progresses, it gets more disruptive and metallic each time it appears, gradually being followed in later movements by more and more out of kilter drumbeats. The movement ends chillingly with dry coughs, a downward line in the celesta having turned to ice everything that had been young and hopeful.

The third movement brings us into a world of classic bureaucratic satire. The portrait is not so violent as the sketch of Stalin in Symphony No.10, but just as vicious. Emblematic of this is the main theme, which winds itself up, and then immediately and sarcastically back down again. You could use the music as a setting for something out of Gogol.

In the finale, Shostakovich seems to tell us what has become of innocence, both his own and that of the regime.  The music begins with the Annunciation of Death motif from Die Walküre. By now, we expect something like this. We get the Dies Irae reference, too. There are other quotations, and scholars will be busy, as they always are with Shostakovich. After all, in his world, things tended not to mean what they seemed.

What surprises, though, is the quotation from Wagner’s Faust Overture, which comes soon after, and then over and over and over again. Guilt? Collaboration? Going along to get along? Conscience?

For a while, a mature sounding version of the symphony’s opening “innocence” theme seems to gain sway and portray a decent world operating in some normal way. Before long, though, the pulse of the symphony goes awry. The happy sounding music, corrupted by the Faust quotation, becomes a tormented version of the military march from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, only this time it is a hopelessly lame and dysfunctional passacaglia. Experiencing this music is like being transported down a bumpy road in a bad vehicle, swaying from side to side.

Unlike most marches, this one approaches collapse as it gets louder, somehow drooping further and becoming more lopsided with every effort until, with a massive and metallic seizure, the symphony’s heart-rhythm stops and begins to fibrillate. At this point, after some shapeless bass drumbeats, a sort of dreamlike state for the dying man emerges.

The toy shop motif from the beginning of the symphony now returns, with its simple clicking and clacking, which continues for many bars of stasis, until, after a while, one simply hears a toy drum-major fall over. Shostakovich depicts the banging of the little mechanism against the floor, until it winds down. Then, at the sound of a single soft bell-tone, the piece ends as it began.

Shostakovich outlived this symphony for only a short time, The Soviet regime did not fare much better.

Valery Gergiev’s performance of this work, not surprisingly, was on a grand scale, delivered idiomatically and accurately with all the passion, sarcasm and misery it contains. It made my Ashkenazy performance on CD seem like Mozart. The Shostakovich 15th is possibly the most recent symphony yet written to achieve masterpiece status, and I came away from this performance deeply moved and assured of its immortality.

There is no question, of course, about the immortality of death! But I did note, ruefully, that questions of artistic collaboration with authoritarian regimes remain. The USSR, like Francisco Franco, is “still dead”–or is it? Valery Gergiev is a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

There were human rights pickets outside the hall.

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. Huntley Dent April 4, 2010 @ 19:23

    Lucky Berkshire Review — I can’t think of a better writer on classical music who is now on the current scene. I hope you give us much more, and that you extend your reach beyond San Francisco. You are an accomplished, witty essayist, a rare creature since Corno di Bassetto quit writing about music some time ago. You are Virgil Thompson rising with a bullet.

    Your description of the Mariinsky Orch. matched what I heard last month when Gergiev brought Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet to Carnegie Hall. But some of the roughness is fatigue and overwork. Being a very disciplined ensemble, they fall back on precision when they’re tired. They can be more sensitive and flexible on better days.

    Gergiev has found a way to maintain a vital pulse from the first measure to the last, as you note. With the LSO he gets more finesse from his players. Their Shostakovich, when heard in concert, reaches deeper and more movingly than the Mariinsky’s. And despite his madly cramped schedule, Gergiev is still spreading his wings. I have a copy of a live Bruckner Ninth from London that could be Furtwangler redivivus.

    You also hear in Matsuev what I hear. The new Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody that he has recorded with Gergiev on the Mariinsky house label is a marvel, all the more so because Gergiev makes of each variation a tiny tone poem. Matsuev got off on the wrong foot by releasing a debut CD on RCA/BMG dedicated to Horowitz. It was a cheap ply, and he’s not that kind at heart.

    As I travel out of Santa Fe, my favorite conductors are Gergiev and Levine. My regrets that you are stuck so often with MTT, who earned the nickname in his Boston days of Michael Tinsel Tonsil.

  2. Avatar photoSteven Kruger April 6, 2010 @ 14:07

    Much as I admire Gergiev, I wish he would broaden his profile outside the Russian repertory.
    This is hard to do with his own orchestra being a virtual offshoot of Russian public policy.

    Next season, Osmo Vanska will conduct the Vaughan Williams “London Symphony” in San Francisco. That is the sort of step beyond expectation which might keep things interesting, if Gergiev were to go a bit afield as well.

    I’m glad he’s doing Bruckner, though!


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