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Orpheus Ascending

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/29/2008 -  and 03/01, 03/02 (Matinee)
Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette: Excerpts
Richard Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Claude Debussy: La Mer

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

In a rare New York moment, Valery Gergiev ascended from the caliginous depths of the opera orchestral pit to the empyreal radiance of the Carnegie Hall concert stage leading an orchestra which lives in legend and reality.

Gergiev is the epitome of the 21st Century, the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor of the Met, General Director of the Kirov Opera, Ballet and Orchestra, and a voluminous recording artist. The impossibility of this is that he does all of it so perfectly well.

And here he was with an orchestra whose own singular sounds were never associated with the music which Gregiev assigned to them. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has not simply existed for 160 years. They have been the virtual “accompanists” to Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner; the Vienna sound for Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven is like a template how music should sound, and the strings of this great orchestra….well, wait.

The first half was devoted to excerpts from Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet, something of a disservice to those who know the whole “Dramatic Symphony” and its subtle interweaving themes. But if the orchestra seemed a little cold to the grand climaxes, they essayed that first fughetta and the Queen Mab scherzo with technical skill.

The second half was more to their style. The Tristan "Prelude and Liebestod" is the first of three incarnations these next three weeks. First this orchestra excerpt, then the full opera at the Met, starting March 10, and finally Lang Lang playing Liszt’s arrangement.

But Gergiev had nothing to worry about. He took the work through its sensual journey, the crescendos phrased in silk, and the strings making it an intense experience.

Debussy’s La Mer was particularly fascinating after last night’s Peter Grimes. Britten’s opera was the sea from the vantage point of people. Thus, this was the sea as enemy, challenge and crucifixion. Debussy’s sea was the sea itself without human intervention.

Gergiev caught the pulsing, motoric rhythm under the sea. His waves were not torrents but painted images of water (remember Debussy’s original cover the Japanese picture by Hokusai). And when the Vienna Phil unleashed its grand horn choir, or let the timpanist send the rhythms to the surface, it was mighty playing indeed.

I was wondering, though, how the strings had that power and resonance which escapes even the best American orchestras. One clue was that, where American violinists have virtually a military precision in bowing, the Vienna players are not so microscopically meticulous. The result is a vibrancy which is alive and organic.

And in La Mer, Gergiev offered a picture which didn’t so much depict the sea as turn the sea into music itself.

Harry Rolnick



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