Classical and Opera Reviews

Prom 48: Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Chorus – Valery Gergiev @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 August 2006


Perfection is difficult to achieve but Valery Gergiev and his forces came very close to it during the second half of this concert.

Arguably, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13 is a greater work than the Sibelius Violin Concerto which took centre place in the first half.

Apparently Lyadov’s From the Apocalypse is about angels, rainbows, lions, thunders and other apocalyptic images: quite a lot is supposed to be happening during this relatively short piece.

Unaware of the supposed images, I heard a mixture of Wagnerian outbursts and Russian church melodies. I appreciated the two tubas (instead of the customary one), two harps, large brass and percussion sections and the excellent performance on this occasion. Though on one hearing I would not rate this composition as a great masterpiece, I would nevertheless welcome the closing solo timpani bars on my entrance to another world if played as brilliantly as tonight.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is not popular without reason. Its slow tunes and dance melodies stay long in the memory and, in spite of its challenging technical difficulties, performers get a fair chance to be heard advantageously. The solo violin establishes its dominance right at the very beginning, the orchestra accompanies and supports.

Soloist Vadim Repin either had some accident with his strings or he forgot to tune with the orchestra prior to his performance. In the first movement I was uncomfortable with his intonation throughout. Apparently so was he, because he tuned before the second movement: afterwards intonation was fine and the performance gained extra momentum. Repin was a huge audience success which, in spite of his efficient playing, I could not fully understand. Perhaps a long term Repin prommers relationship was at play.

I doubt if Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13, also known as Babiy Yar, could receive a better performance than what we heard tonight. A different kind of performance might be possible but never a better one. Gergiev’s discography does not include this symphony. I would love the BBC to make tonight’s broadcast and TV relay into a CD or DVD.

Mikhail Petrenko seems to be coming to the rescue on a regular basis (see Prom 2). To step into a major role, such as the solo part of Babiy Yar, is no mean feat. In addition, Petrenko delivered a superb performance musically as well as textually. All five movements are set to poems by Yevgeny Yevtusenko. Not only did Petrenko deliver the texts with crystal clear diction but he also interpreted the content as only very good actors would. Musically, too, Petrenko gave us what Shostakovich most probably envisaged. We had wonderful laments, tight rhythmic folk-dance sections, heroic statements. Petrenko’s large palette accommodated all shades.

The otherwise excellent programme notes said relatively little about Yevtusenko. Yet in the early 1960s he was a hugely significant figure in Russia and, as I remember from my teenage years in Hungary, also in other communist countries. He represented conscience and hope. Looking at Petrenko and listening to his singing, I believed that – for the 60 minutes duration of the symphony – he was Yevtusenko.

Shostakovich was very brave to set Yevtusenko’s highly critical poems to music. In particular the first poem, Babiy Yar, created a considerable shock at the time. But apart from his courage Shostakovich also produced a masterpiece for solo bass, male chorus and large symphony orchestra. On one hand Shostakovich was word painting Yevtusenko’s texts, but he also understood the sarcasm in some of the poems and produced musical effects to the contrary of the spoken words. But even leaving aside Yevtusenko’s significant poems, Shostakovich’s music is profound, truly expressive and noble. I guess Shostakovich experts are unlikely to agree with me but, for me, his Babiy Yar is possibly his greatest work.

It is hard to praise the collaboration between Gergiev and the Mariinsky forces high enough. The latter read and understand Gergiev as, possibly, no other ensemble does. Gergiev only needs to indicate (rather than impose) his ideas and they carry out his wishes.

Chorus and orchestra are excellent. The basses in the chorus must be the envy of many non-Russian companies. The orchestra has dream teams in their percussion and brass sections but all other sections, too, amazed on this concert. The long cello/bass melodies, the flute duets, the violin/viola duets will stay in the memory. And so will the finely shaped and many shaded pizzicato passages as well as the superb ensemble playing throughout. This was a great performance to cherish.



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