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Off-White Nights

New York
Carnegie Hall
12/13/2001 -  12/14/01;12/15/01;12/16/01
Anatoli Liadov: The Enchanted Lake
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto # 4; The Isle of the Dead; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Symphony # 2
Alexander Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird
Sergei Prokofieff: Scythian Suite; Piano Concerto # 2; Symphony # 5
Richard Wagner: Overture to Tannhaeuser
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 5

Alex Slobodyanik, Vladimir Feltsman, Alexander Toradze (pianos)
Kirov Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Geopolitical events of the past twenty years have not been kind to the old Maryinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. Finally adjusting to the economy of the isolated empire, the historic opera company experienced wholesale defections of its personnel when the Berlin Wall came down. Orchestral positions in the West were much more lucrative and Russian musicians were prime candidates to fill them (I have personal experience of one symphonic ensemble in Latin America where the members are almost exclusively from behind the Iron Curtain). Still hanging on economically because of government subsidies left over from the old Soviet system, the Kirov Orchestra (the instrumental arm of the opera) survived after a fashion due almost exclusively to the determination and electric energy of its conductor, Valery Gergiev. This maestro’s decision to remain at home has been a shining example to his forces, especially since it is no secret that he is hungrily coveted by the management of New York’s own Metropolitan Opera. Now that the economy has gone bust in the homeland, Gergiev must deal with even more rumblings of desertion. For a while his ensemble resembled the population of a very small town all of whose men went to war at the same time some years ago: the residents were either young students or grizzled veterans pushing the limits of retirement. The mix has changed once again, but this very instability is the cause of many of the orchestra’s problems. Through all of these travails, the Kirov is still able to mount an interesting series of four concerts at Carnegie Hall, each focusing on a different icon of the relatively recent musical past of Mother Russia.

Night One: Stravinsky: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Igor Stravinsky learned his mythology from two powerful sources. His father, Feodor, was a superstar basso at this very opera company and made his reputation in the same mystical roles that would soon thereafter be introduced to a wider audience by Chaliapin. Young Igor would see his familial idol dressed as Khan Kontchak or Boris and dream of legendary times. His formal study was accomplished at the feet of that most imaginative of composers, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, and so he spent his early creative energies on the absorption of the folk myths of ancient and primitive societies emerging from the pripet marshes to inhabit a world of demons and witches, sorcerers and golden cockerels. Stravinsky’s first major achievement, the ballet The Firebird, is straight out of his teacher’s prodigious armamentarium of colorful orchestration, the interplay of wind quintet and cello in the Khorovod a direct homage to the second movement of his master’s Scheherazade.

A lovely and shimmering impression of an Enchanted Lake was summarily obliterated by a loud and blaring rendition of the Rach 4. I would have loved to hear young Alex Slobodyanik’s take on this leaner and meaner revised version of the concerto, but he was literally drowned out in all but the softest of passages. When I had originally seen the announcement for this series of concerts, I had thought that the Poem of Fire might be a better choice for a companion piece, since the Rachmaninoff is so short and that particular opus has a part for solo piano, but after experiencing the gross imbalance of the concerto, I didn’t care to hear another effort pitting 80 people playing as loudly as they could against one poor defenseless pianist. I was not at all ecstatic about the Scriabin that we did hear, as this performance was simply awful. The trumpets, so important in this piece for both melodic leadership and harmonic grounding, were about as ugly and blaring as professional musicians can get, their sliding around the notes (some of which are actually in the score) literally making my ears hurt by the work’s conclusion. Although the strings of the Kirov are capable of a pleasing sound, the overall effect of an ensemble tutti consistently had me cringing. It didn’t take too long in this piece for me to remember the most distinctive characteristic of White Nights: they seem to go on interminably.

The reading of the Stravinsky was only marginally better. There are a lot of passages for strings alone in the first half of The Firebird and these were a welcome relief, but those of us who know the score realized that we were not safe for long. Actually, the Rimskiian round dance referred to earlier was expertly built by Gergiev, who was careful to highlight the rich sonority of the sextet (winds and cello) from the ornamentation of the full orchestra, but one of the other key numbers featured in the more popular suite from the ballet, the Infernal dance, was so loud, fast and sloppy as to sweep away all sense of subtlety and nuance. The extreme rhythmic inventiveness of this section, a precursor to Le Sacre, was totally subsumed by a conflagration of boiling fudge, as if it were being eaten away by its own demons (and pauses, built into the text by the composer for dramatic emphasis, were glibly ignored). The finale was an emblem of the entire performance in microcosm. After the melody was beautifully, even poetically, intoned by the solo horn, the strings elaborated on it lovingly, but, as more and more of the orchestra joined in, the exquisite tune turned into a jagged emanation from a bad portable radio, Gergiev, as if not satisfied with the preceding level of torture, adding even more tinny trumpets stage right. Being by now at a consistent and irritating triple forte, the conductor had no place to go at the very end, the ultimate crescendo, so vitally important in the rich color scheme of the work as a whole, just another regurgitation of extreme volume. My companion and I took some perverse pleasure in noting that we were hardly the only patrons shaking our heads as we fled the hall.

Night Two: Rachmaninoff: Unfinished Love Song

When the young Hermann Hesse left home in 1900 to pursue his creative career in Basel, he took with him, in addition to the works of Nietzsche, a framed reproduction of “The Isle of the Dead” by the Swiss painter Arnold Boecklin. It is fitting that the future great novelist, the first prominent patient treated by psychologist Josef B. Lang and the eventual creator of so many expansive Jungian landscapes in literature, was drawn to the work of a Symbolist. Actually a series of five very similar paintings with the same title, “The Isle of the Dead”, the original of which hangs right here in New York, was the single most popular work of art in the Europe of the early twentieth century (Freud had a series of dreams about it). Depicting a shrouded figure having crossed a river (which could be the Styx) and about to disembark at its spectral destination, this haunting and mysterious landscape inspired two important pieces of brooding music: the Four Tone Poems after Arnold Boecklin of Max Reger and a dark, foreboding essay by Rachmaninoff.

This second concert was considerably better than the first for the simple mathematical reason that there is an inverse ratio between the quantity of passages for brass and the quality of play of the Kirov. However, there was still the impediment of Gergiev’s inability to lead his troops below a mezzo piano. Whereas the composer intended for this opening to be spectral (listen to his own recording of The Isle of the Deadwith the Philadelphia Orchestra), the Russians rather declaratively commenced at a high enough volume to strike only the fear into our hearts that they would lose their intonation once the climaxes occurred. Starting out so loud left their journey a pedestrian one: where Rachmaninoff urged an exclamation point, tonight there was only wriggle room enough for an ellipsis. A savvy veteran like Vladimir Feltsman didn’t wait to be inundated by these brigands: he came out with both keyboard guns blazing, performing from the outset at an inordinately loud level. Even during this instrumental shouting match, Feltsman was able to imbue his performance with phrasing poesy, covering his now expected memory lapses with such adept and appropriate music as to impress but a rare few of us who listen closely with his improvisational abilities. Less brass is not the total answer to Gergiev’s problems. After the soloist played the 18th variation quite lovingly, the reprise in the strings, possibly the most beautiful single melodic moment in all of music history, turned out to be a screechy double forte echo (the ultimate sacrilege for Rachmaninoff devotees). The damning thing is that this type of boombox sonority catches on with a naïve public, who leapt to their feet as one at its conclusion for prolonged shouts of applause.

The performance of the Symphony # 2 was the best of the lot, but still in an entirely different league than the Previn version with the New York Phil earlier this season. Here the Kirov strings were somewhat held in check, intoning with just the proper degree of lushness in movements 1 through 3. The sound settled down enough for me to move on to my next irritation: the comical platform behavior of this preening rock-star wannabe. Even Gloria Swanson descended the Sunset Boulevard staircase with less exaggeration. I could overlook the histrionics if the finished product were, well, a finished product. Instead we were all still subjected to music making on an uncomfortably unstable plateau. The delicious beauties of the Adagio were elusive at best, the Russian clarinetist, no Stanley Drucker, tentative and deliberate in an opening solo that should be lyrical and expansive. This movement is so inspired that even a substandard version is somewhat moving; only within the context of Gergiev’s superficial aesthetic, however, can I classify this rendition as satisfactory.

Night Three: Prokofieff: Storm Over Asia

Much as I love the # 7 of both Mahler and Sibelius, my vote for best symphony of the 20th century has always gone to the incredible # 5 of Serge Prokofieff. Written at the very close of World War II, this extended tone poem chronicles the insecurities and eventual triumphs of the Soviet peoples, ending optimistically, as Crane’s story The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky begins, with a description of a speeding train traversing a vast and promising landscape. Along the way to this glorious embarkation there is such an array of superb subtleties as to make one shake one’s head in wonderment. To mention but a single example, the hypnotic opening of the highly affecting third movement is a ghastly adaptation of Beethoven’s ”Moonlight” Sonata into the macabre alphabet of modern warfare. This mood is sustained throughout this remarkable movement and its conclusion, with one bonechillingly vanishing trumpet figure, is unforgettable.

After a surprisingly tame Scythian Suite, the orchestra accompanied Alexander Toradze in an idiosyncratic reading of the Second Piano Concerto, whose original manuscript was burned for warmth by the residents of Prokofieff’s Petrograd apartment while he was in the United States (the dangers of subletting are familiar to all New Yorkers). This resulting recreation was painstakingly fashioned by the composer and normally exudes a great deal of élan and rebellious spirit as a reaction to a friend’s suicide. In Mr. Toradze’s big hands, however, the entropy of the Russian winter seemed to bring the proceedings close to absolute zero. The entire concerto, except for the brief scherzo, was played at a speed less than one quarter of its normal tempi, a deconstruction which sounded forced at the keyboard but positively silly from the combined instrumentalists. The solo flute in the first movement, for example, could not sustain any semblance of the melodic line at so glacial a pace, wisps of pure breath emanating from his chair after the individual notes had run their course. This swimming through molasses led to cadenzas wherein the “dramatic” pauses lasted far longer in total duration than the notes themselves and then the pianist applied his ritardandi! Once again, I was aware of the unusual length of the White Nights, but there seemed to be little daylight let in here. It occurred to me during this ordeal that if one were going to adopt this approach, which crystallizes the audience’s focus and scrutiny on each and every tone, that it would be best to actually hit all of the notes that the composer intended. However, Mr. Toradze, rather a ham-fisted practitioner, made many errors besides his major one of judgment and magnified the problem by standing up from the bench several times to put even more weight behind his triple forte utterances (is this just a Russian trait?). Perhaps, as a scholar, he is somehow privy to the original metronome markings from before the fire, but, if not, this type of sophistry, although likely to be praised by my colleagues for its revelatory character, seemed to be simply novelty for its own sake. As if to reassure us that he can play at a normal gait if he wants to, this grandstanding pianist proceeded (of course, with Gergiev’s complicity) to encore the same scherzo at its proper tempo, an alacrity that seemed almost superhuman after the tedium just experienced.

All of the previous evenings’ problems plagued the performance of the great Fifth Symphony. Mr. Gergiev, who is one of the very few conductors whom I see as an audience member on his evenings off, needs to come out into the hall during one of the rehearsals of his own ensemble. I am sure that he would be shocked at the general impression left by their aggregate sound. The screeching seemed to have metastasized to the wind section this night and this was doubly regrettable as interpretively this was a decent version with Gergiev showing sensitive phrase building, especially in the cracked mirror third movement. There are, to be sure, moments in this stupendous work where beauty is more perfectly expressed by the creation of passages of supreme ugliness as its backdrop, a technique which Prokofieff was contemporaneously developing for the ballet Cinderella, but this performance went too far. At some point, that train crossed over the hostile border between music and noise.

Night Four: Tchaikovsky: The Dance of Death

Destiny has always been a major force in classical music. Mozart mocks it in Figaro and Cosi, but shudderingly surrenders to it in Don Giovanni. In operas written at the same time (and with their composers sharing ideas and glimpses of each other’s scores), both Siegmund and Enee are doggedly pursued by it. Janacek’s image of the waterwheel at the beginning of Jenufa expresses its chilling quality. But nowhere is Fate more pervasive a character than in the Symphony # 5 of Tchaikovsky. He is the man who came to dinner and he is the reaper. Night four of the Kirov’s journey was the whitest of them all since it was actually a day (Sunday afternoon), but New York at three o’clock on the shortest daylit week of the year is a lot less bright than St. Petersburg at midnight during their June festival. Although I felt as if I had already gone three rounds with a pugilistic bear, I bravely returned for a fourth attempt (since the David Soul decision, I am hesitant to miss a concert for fear of being sued).

Demonstrating that he doesn’t only overplay Russian music, Gergiev opened the final concert with a shameless performance of the original concert version of the overture to Tannhaeuser which was much more Venus and considerably less Elizabeth than good taste would normally allow. I began to realize that his formula for success contains a good deal of pandering, his exaggeration and elongation of every phrase designed to hit the crowd over its collective Philistine head. Of course, the volume was cranked up from the start, the culminating reprises of the main theme so garishly screamed out that not even a cellular phone could have penetrated this muddle. That particular assault was saved for the softest passage in a relatively rather well executed La Mer, where good string playing saved the day a bit. At least the decibels were submerged in a watery grave.

Let me say at the outset that of all of the major works in this entire series, the Tchaikovsky is by far the most difficult to conduct. Even after the rhythmic complexities of Stravinsky, the opulent lushness of Rachmaninoff, or the acerbic dissonance of Prokofieff, it is this chilling landscape that is the hardest to paint in sound. The constant repetitions of the main theme need the judicious employment of the entire spectrum of orchestral coloration in order to keep Fate’s inevitability from becoming the listener’s monotony, and the most important tool of the conductor in this essential variegation of ornamentation is dynamics. However, in this performance, I initially thought that the stagehands had brought out the wrong score, since Fate entered Carnegie Hall as in the Symphony # 5 of Beethoven instead and it was painfully obvious to me that we were all to suffer at the hands of destiny, since the volume level must rise significantly by its final visitation. All of the fine artistry of the Kirov strings and their master, including a very well balanced (in the sense of a pachyderm on a circus barrel) first movement wherein Death waltzes and parades at the same time (even in his most sardonic moments of ballet, Prokofieff can’t accomplish that) was swallowed up in the constant ambuscade. What should have been a kaleidoscope was little more than an insistent monochrome. This was the marching band version of Tchaikovsky.

One of the many factors which unites the four major composers in this series is that their music has been arranged over the past century into a large bouquet of cinematic flowers. Unfortunately, the present performances by the Kirov did not call to mind pleasant memories of Brief Encounter or Love and Death, but rather that scene in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety where Dick Van Patten is murdered by loud rock music from his car radio, his body left by the side of the road, the last close-up revealing the blood oozing from his ears. For some reason, I can’t get that image out of my mind just now.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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