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Greatness Is Not Pretty

Orange County
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
03/19/2009 -  
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100

Alexei Volodin (Piano)
London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Valery Gergiev (© Marco Borggreve/Decca)

Valery Gergiev may not be pretty. But there is a magnificent intensity about him that Frederich Nietzsche would have admired. He commands the cover of the New York Times Magazine and the eyes of the political world as handily as he does an orchestra. He seems to be the kind of man who would flourish in any culture or age. One can easily imagine him as an artist or condottiere in Renaissance Italy. The most striking aspect of journalist Arthur Lubow’s portrait of Gergiev is how forcefully his talons sink into the world outside of music. But that immense personal force reveals itself musically as well. He is steeped in the traditions of great music and musicality, and he has welded that gift to a deep understanding of the modern condition, in all its power, violence and bitterness. This cagey, raw intelligence is so distant from the joy of making music that we associate with Leonard Bernstein or Gustavo Dudamel. Gergiev does not conjure optimism. But achievement comes in many colors, and Gergiev’s is perhaps both brighter and darker than any other in our time.

For Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, one would think that Gergiev could have any pianist that he wanted. So I had high hopes for Alexei Volodin. Maybe he would be a Russian answer to the youthful bravura of Lang Lang, but with the magisterial quality of Ashkenazy. Perhaps, because Gergiev chose this young talent, the orchestra and piano would play as one instrument. The orchestral opening was crisp and ethereally light. The pianist was equally light-footed, both brisk and delicate. Both in the lyrical passages and against the violin pizzicatti, the piano was admirable, bright, clear and unambiguous. This was Beethoven as celebration. Volodin was good for the Emperor Concerto, and the London Symphony was excellent, even the woodwinds were crisp. He was strong in the fast passages, and graceful but without great emotion in the lyrical. In the swift descending arpeggios at the end of the first movement, Volodin seemed to lose confidence, but the Londoner’s carried him forward.

Gergiev hardly looked at the pianist, but paired the orchestra to the piano with ease. Having seen Martha Argerich with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the nearly unknown but extremely talented young Quebecois conductor Yannick Nézet-Seguin, I could not help but imagine a different pairing. Nézet-Seguin threw himself into Ravel and Shostakovich with the extreme exertion of a Greek warrior-athlete. Constantly looking over at Argerich, he followed every nuance of every gesture. Argerich tossed off the Ravel Concerto in G with the ease of Athena and the grace of Aphrodite. As she nimbly stood up to roar of applause, she seemed to say: “Maybe I should play all the concertos with one hand… tonight my left and then tomorrow my right.” She would make a more interesting counterpart to Gergiev; I wonder what they would be like together. In contrast, at times Volodin seemed to strain to keep up with Beethoven’s demands.

In the slow opening of the second movement of the Emperor Concerto, there was a razor-sharp glowing crescendo in the strings that was perfect. The tone of Volodin’s piano was lyrically beautiful, particularly in the trills and the solo melodic work. The fast parts of the third movement were revelatory, with a gorgeous change in mood, from celebratory to sublime within a measure. There was a hint of Ashkenazy, if not as much as I had hoped. In Beethoven’s highly characteristic trills, Volodin’s dynamic control was impressive. But overall, he needs to project more energy. Still, I doubt that we will hear a better Emperor Concerto for some time.

When Gergiev came back onstage after the intermission, he launched the orchestra immediately into Prokofiev Five, accenting the note of darkness within the pastoral opening. Now that he was not hidden behind the piano, he seemed weathered but not haggard, more energized than exhausted by his travels. The fluttering motion of his right hand seemed imprecise, the angle of his hand and wrist looked awkward and graceless. But nevertheless, there was no question that Gergiev commanded absolute control and a rock-solid connection to his musicians. The music in the first movement felt vividly dramatic, but not at all narrative; there was no sense of any program or story arc. Prokofiev’s unique voice leapt off the stage. The first movement finale was stunning.

The second movement began without a pause, more exotic with more percussion in the foreground. It occurred to me that this is certainly one of the greatest symphonies every written by a composer who also wrote film scores. Even the brass, incredibly supple and virtuosic, felt percussive. Gergiev articulated every detail, including the smashing detonation of the movement’s end. The strident chords of the third movement were vast and darkly romantic, limned by percussive rhythms and a martial snare drum. The music was disturbing, even blaring, an account of modernity that both contrasts and overlaps Shostakovich and Bartok. Gergiev clearly knows the territory deeply, has lived there. The final movement is more classical, perhaps to appease the Soviets. But the classicism morphs again into Prokofiev’s modern voice, with all of its headlong strangeness. The sound of a gunshot merely begins the explosion of the finale. The level of greatness challenged even Beethoven. With Gergiev fluidly throwing his right hand upward and his left down, the stunning encore was the "March" from Prokofiev’s opera, The Love of Three Oranges.

The first Gergiev/LSO concert, the night before, began the Philharmonic Society season series finale. There was a gala dinner afterward and Beefeater guards at the entrance to the hall. It was the first time that the London Symphony had been in California in 25 years. Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was the perfect icebreaker. As balanced and graceful as Mozart or Haydn, the performance was almost imperceptibly modern. The second movement came forward into the 19th century, with a very light touch on Gergiev’s part. The dance-like third movement moved eastward, and by the final movement they arrived in Russia.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Alexei Volodin, was not as strong as their performance of the Emperor Concerto. The softer, more expressive and poetic quality of the music did not play to Volodin’s strengths. In the most lyrical passages, his playing was direct, but not emotive. The best aspect of the performance was the connection between the soloist, conductor and orchestra; their tempi were immaculately supportive of each other, with the energy passing back and forth between them. There was an ovation but no encore before the intermission.

In Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, Gergiev and the LSO offered suave dark strings and sublime blasts of brass. In an impassioned performance of mad genius, the heartbreaking music made a spectacular case for Prokofiev as one of the greatest symphonic composers. It was classical and alien at once, with traces of Shostakovich, Janacek and Mahler. The encore from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was exotic and familiar, rhythmic and unforgettable, bombastic in the very best sense. The magnificent London Symphony strings played with that same intensely ethereal quietness that opens their historic recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, The Titan with Georg Solti. They are certainly among the best in the world.

Thomas Aujero Small



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