The Russian Stravinsky: A Philharmonic Festival: Program VIII
The New York Philharmonic
conducted by Valery Gergiev
Avery Fisher Hall
Saturday, May 8, 2010, 11:00 am
Valery Gergiev, Conductor
Alexei Volodin, Piano
Stravinsky, Symphony In Three Movements
Stravinsky, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments
Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps
In recent years, I’ve had the feeling that Stravinsky, with the exception of his Sacre du Printemps and the vastly overplayed Pulcinella, has fallen somewhat into neglect. We rarely hear the great choral and dramatic works like Agon and Oedipus Rex, Mass, or even the Symphony of Psalms, not to mention the ballet, Les Noces. James Levine has a predilection for Stravinsky, and he has conducted fine performances of the Sacre and some others, but his effort has been tepid in comparison to his obsessive combing over Mahler, season after season, in preparation for the centenary of the composer’s death year in 2011. Hence Gergiev’s Stravinsky Festival with the New York Philharmonic is especially welcome, and I very much regret that I was not able to attend more than one of the concerts.
On the other hand I find the rapidity with which Gergiev has been scaling the snow-capped peaks of western music—Mahler with the LSO, Prokofiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Opera, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Wagner’s Ring—astonishing, almost disconcerting. He must be a phenomenally quick study and be endowed with a phenomenal memory. Still, one must wonder how he can absorb all the complexities of these vast bodies of work in such a short space of time, even at this mature stage of his career, with a generation of music-making behind him. Unfortunately I’ve only been able to witness a small part of this activity, but I can amply attest to his affinity for Prokofiev. There is a significant difference in temperament between those two Russians. While Stravinsky was quite comfortable as an expatriate, especially in Paris, and his music became less and less Russian as he developed, becoming the poster child of international modernism by the 1920s, Prokofiev was less happy and less successful, eventually finding it necessary to return to Mother Russia, even if it had become Stalin’s Soviet Union. While Prokofiev cultivated Christian Science (rather oddly) as spiritual armor, necessarily secretly under the circumstances, Stravinsky’s interest in Roman Catholic liturgy may have created a relative separation from Russianness, but he remained faithful to the Russian Orthodox church, his religion of birth, unto death. Then there was Los Angeles…
This concert consisted of three of his greatest masterpieces, the Sacre (1911), the work that made him notorious as an avant-guardist, being as representative of his early Russian music composed for French audiences, as the Symphony in Three Movements, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic itself in 1946, is of his intellectualizing American phase. It is also a retrospective composition, containing numerous quotations from his earlier work, including the Sacre, making for contrasting, yet congenial mates on a program. If the Sacre is romantic in its Harrisonian way, and the Symphony is classical, the Concerto for Piano and Winds brings in an element of the baroque, giving the audience a total view of Stravinsky’s encyclopedic musical culture.
Gergiev’s own encyclopaedism shows him to be a conductor led by the ambition to set his mark on all orchestral and operatic music in the period that interests him, the period from high romanticism through the early twentieth century, and these performances were very clearly the work of a conductor who wants to set his personal mark on the music. From Stravinsky’s own utterances and from his extensive body of recordings documenting his own performance style, we know him to have consciously espoused a cool, rather impersonal manner, focused on accurately reproducing the indications in his score. Knowing Gergiev’s idiosyncratic, romantic propensities, I wondered if this would be at odds with a radically different performance tradition, which is documented in such detail, as only an artifact of the age of sound and video recording can be. I have recently had occasion to discuss this in connection with Monteux’s 1929 recording of the Sacre, which, since he conducted the premiere of the work at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, has an authority equal to Stravinsky’s own. Apart from the recordings, both lived long lives and continued to delight and influence audiences into the 1960s. The New York Philharmonic in fact celebrated Stravinsky as composer and musician, as well as their own role in its creation, by making a recording of Stravinsky’s own premiere performance of the Symphony in Three Movements available on their website, which is also rich in other educational tools. It couldn’t have been easier to hear Gergiev’s intervention in its full context.
While he produced a massive, gorgeous sound from the New York Philharmonic, his attention to detail and rhythmic precision, as well as his aggressively angular gestures made it clear that he was attempting to absorb Stravinskian objectivity within his own, large-scale, expressionistic idiom. In order to assimilate it, he found it necessary to exaggerate. If I say that his manner bordered on the caricatural, I do not intend to diminish his achievement in any way. It seemed to be more his way of taking on the Stravinskian manner while maintaining a distance from it, remaining fully within his own psychic world, as he projected his own image of Stravinsky within the sonic space of Fisher Hall. Indeed, Gergiev could not have had a better vantage point for setting his own stamp on Stravinsky than this dense and allusive summum of his life’s work. The sound of the Philharmonic, who played magnificently in all of their sections, remained eminently clear throughout. Gergiev, in his meticulous attention to detail and the character of the heterogeneous styles which Stravinsky folded into the classical symphonic mould, was especially effective in letting the jazz elements make themselves heard and to make them function within the whole. The final result was impressive, exhilarating, and satisfying. The audience at this Saturday morning concert, which included a generous component of what Leonard Bernstein referred to as “young people”, as well as the usual mature matinee audience, loved it, and responded accordingly.
The Concerto for Piano and Winds was also marked by a keen sense of musical idiom, as well as Alexei Volodin’s polished and energetic playing. The dotted rhythms of the slow introduction recalled not so much the grandeur of baroque organ music or brass choirs as the opening section of a concerto grosso or suite. In this context Gergiev found even richer veins of jazz. The slow movement had all its due solemnity and weight, while the finale swept on to an exuberant conclusion. This reading may not have been as unique and memorable as the performance I heard a roughly a month before with Olli Mustonen and that inveterate Stravinskian, Herbert Blomstedt, but it served the composer very well indeed.
Gergiev’s approach to the Sacre, with its massivity, heaviness, and extreme contrasts of tempo, was likely to elicit more controversy, not least because the work is familiar, and present in the minds of many listeners through the recordings of Monteux, Stravinsky, and many other performances, live and on disc, which have been shaped by them, from Bernstein to Levine. I personally found it a trifle ponderous and exaggeratedj—ust a bit too aggressively Russian. The performance even had a comical moment, when an elderly couple, finding themselves unable to sit through it to the end, just like many in the Sacre’s first audiences, set out for the door from their seats in the front of the parquet. For their exit, they chose the “Processional of the Oldest and Wisest One”, which in Gergiev’s remarkably slow tempo perfectly matched their limited ambulation. One can only ask, were they unseasoned in modernism or offended traditionalists? For my part, I did not find Gergiev entirely convincing, but I was hardly tempted to run away. I heard at several points wonderful details in the inner textures I’d never heard before, and I was constantly gaining new insight into the music. I left grateful to have heard Gergiev’s idiosyncratic view of the Sacre, but reflecting that I wouldn’t be interested in a recording of it. In retrospect, I’m not so sure.