Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rotterdam Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

11 June 2006

Judging by the sold out Barbican Hall and the long queue for return tickets, this concert was eagerly awaited. In the event, the anticipation was well rewarded by an excellent concert.

As it is rarely performed, Shostakovich’s Third Symphony is the least well-known of his symphonies. It employs a very large orchestra as well as a chorus, and makes huge technical demands on the performers.

The chorus appears in the final section of this 27 minute-long one-movement symphony. They sing the praise of the First of May a symbolic as well as important historic day in the struggle of the working classes in a poem specially written for this symphony by Semyon Kirsanov. Both this text and the music of the whole piece evoke May Day parades in communist Russia and satellite communist countries. Indeed, I was strongly reminded of a great many May Day parades in which I participated in Budapest.

The final chorus and the key of the composition offer similarities with Beethoven. Schiller’s Ode to Joy, crowning Beethoven’s ninth symphony, affirms the brotherhood of all people, while Karsanov’s sub-text is the ‘workers of the world, unite’ Marxist maxim. Revolution in Beethoven is represented in E flat major (Eroica) and here in Shostakovich we have the same key. An unusual characteristic of the work is the large number of themes that appear, all of them representing or supporting the relentless march dominating the whole piece.

Shostakovich’s inventive mastery of instrumentation is evident and at this concert he was brilliantly served by members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Apart from just a few notes of unclear intonation – surely caused by the extremely hot weather – in the opening clarinet duo, all the difficult passages were performed with admirable skill and care.

The impressive percussion solo (in retrospect, a reminder of the famous Leningrad Symphony percussion solo), the velvet tone of the solo trombone trills, the assured intonation and ensemble of the three trombones and solo tuba, the brilliant long timpani solo, the excellent trumpet fanfares and the singing strings: all performed as if they were playing regular repertoire, rather than a rarely-played composition of extreme technical difficulties.

The London Symphony Chorus added a heroic dimension to the admirable performance. Of course, the hero of the performance was Valery Gergiev, whose love and respect for the piece was clearly evident. Indeed, I wondered if he nursed nostalgic feelings for those May Day parades of his youth. Gergiev’s knowledge and reading of the score is aided by his clear red-biro markings in his score.

The most impressive feature of the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 (which came before the interval) was the ensemble between soloist Lang Lang and the conductor. I admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the full commitment Gergiev gave to his task. Lang Lang showed both the classical and the romantic sides of the composition, attacking with verve a few sections which could be deemed as revolutionary.

Lang Lang was fully involved with the orchestral parts, so much so that sometimes I felt that we had two conductors on stage but in full harmony. The soloist’s reading gave us all the colours and intricacies of the texture; he was fully committed to every note. Several orchestra members, who were not needed in this piece, came to the auditorium to listen to the piano concerto. This was a further proof of the seriousness with which the orchestra members treat music.

Lang Lang gave us an encore but he failed to announce what he played. For those of you who are still wondering, he played the third movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K330. I would almost have loved Gergiev to conduct this piece too, as the musical discipline of their joint performance was not evident here. Lang Lang is a very popular young artist and deservedly so. He radiated immense warmth during his playing and he also gave genuine attention to all those people who queued for his CD signing after the concert.

Unlike the Third, Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony is in the regular repertoire of the Rotterdam Orchestra and so it should be. The masterly solos of all (leader, solo cello, solo bass, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, bassoon) were breathtaking. The singing velvety tone of the solo trombone was notable even the percussion instruments sing in this orchestra. The precision of the concluding percussion ensemble was hair-raising.

Members of the orchestra (Ronald Ent percussion, Zsofia Kiss violin) talked to me about Gergiev’s love and respect for Shostakovich. They also talked to me about the orchestra’s love and respect for Gergiev, who has been their principal conductor since 1995. Will a similar relationship develop between the LSO and Gergiev when he becomes their principal conductor in 2007? I very much hope so!

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