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That Singular Gergiev Touch

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
03/23/2009 -  
Sergei Prokofiev: Synphony No. 1 in D Major, Opus 25 (“Classical”) – Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Opus 16 – Symphony No. 6 in E-flat Minor, Opus 111

Vladimir Feltsman (Piano)
London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Valery Gergiev (© Alberto Venzago)

A theatre critic once noted that drama can be judged not by the first act or first scene, but by the first sentence. Last night, for the commencement of (blessedly) four concerts devoted to Sergei Prokofiev, Valery Gergiev gave an indication of how his series would continue, with the very first note of the composer’s “Classical” symphony.

Invariably, conductors play the opening “D” in strings and winds with a great pop, continuing with a light heart and happy Haydnesque parody. But that note has no ”Sf”, only the fortissimo sign. This was no sudden bang, but the start of a more complex movement, and that was the way Gergiev conducted. The movement was certainly not ponderous, but in its own way, the London Symphony Orchestra played it with weight, balance and a real symphonic scale. If the tempo seemed a bit slower than usual, perhaps it’s because most conductors play it faster than it should be.

Frankly, I am prejudiced enough to accept Prokofiev on Mr. Gergiev’s terms.

The second movement was hardly played with the tranquility it deserved, and toward the end, those silky LSO strings were almost passionate. For the gavotte, Mr. Gergiev performed with a more balletic grace, and the finale—taken as fast as possible—was the conductor at his extrovert best.

One wonders why the Second Piano Concerto isn’t played as often as the others, but obviously the physical demands on any mortal pair of hands must be virtually impossible. I think especially of that first movement cadenza—if not the most difficult or the longest, certainly the most difficult long cadenza written by the composer. And this to be followed by thousand and thousand of demi-semi-quavers in the next Scherzo movement. Mr. Feltsman accomplished this, for he has always been a bravura pianist. He brought a huge tone, endless energy, lyricism in the rare movements where it counts (mainly the Intermezzo), and brilliance.

Frankly, I didn’t know anything more about Mr. Feltsman the artist, for he was so busy getting through the Augean stable of digital challenges that more human personality can barely peep through. But boy, was it fun!

After the popular “Classical” symphony, the Sixth was a real rarity. Historically the Soviets had virtually banned it from performance, but the real reason is that this is a most enigmatic work. One has the feeling that the E Flat symphony is closest to Shostakovich: not musically, but because it seems to have secrets in the score, that Prokofiev was trying to communicate a code of some kind. Conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky said that the “strangled shrieks” were the atmosphere of terror enveloping Soviet citizens during Stalin’s reign, but I doubt that interpretation very much. Prokofiev had his problems with Stalin, but they were purely artistic.

Still, while some themes are among the composer’s best—the Byzantine modal second theme of the first movement, and the timpani tattoo of the finale—the central movement is sometimes puzzling. The music can be highly lyrical, brooding, the horn chorales crash in on themselves, the string heartbeats are irregular.

Mr. Gergiev had the right orchestra to play the piece, holding the Largo together. The finale is trickiest of all. Mr. Gergiev started with a whizzing carnival of drum calls and brass answers, but finishing with a real sense of tragedy.

Whatever the supposed subtext of the composer, the playing itself was transparent and triumphant.

Harry Rolnick



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