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Music For God’s Talk Show

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
03/24/2009 -  
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No.2 in D minor, Opus 40 – Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Opus 19 – Symphony No.7 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131

Vadim Repin (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Vadim Repin (© Kasskara/DG)

For his second of four Prokofiev concerts this month, Valery Gergiev chose three contrasting pieces, with one remarkable commonality. The Second Sympnony was the composer at his most acerbic, anarchic, a man who could out-dissonance the dodecaphonists, and bring more fire than Prometheus. The Second Violin Concerto was the most unexpected Prokofiev: a man of tranquility and peace and lyricism and unending radiance. The Seventh Symphony had always been, to me, the most vapid work of the composer, though I had a surprise waiting.

What Gergiev brought out unquestionably was that, with Schubert, Scarlatti and Mozart, Prokofiev was amongst the most inspired of melodists. Any piano-player knows that Prokofiev’s albums of sketch-books have the most gorgeous melodies. Like Mozart and Schubert, they seemed to have no forebears, no working out, simply unerringly memorable lines.

It was perhaps difficult to find this in the opening Second Symphony—but it was certainly present in the extended theme of the second movement. This was his “fire and steel” symphony, and it took an audience perhaps used to Peter and the Wolf time to figure it out. The Scythian Suite has that same vitality, but the symphony simply lunges in the face.

Gergiev gave that first movement all the firepower it needed. It was a blistering performance of drums and trumpets, wailing winds and shrieking strings. Yet even when a major note was called for, Prokofiev couldn’t help putting in a minor second as a dissonance. With Gergiev’s transparent London Symphony Orchestra, that wasn’t difficult to figure out. One prominent composer in the audience complained that it was “too slow”, but nobody shared that opinion.

The second movement was a theme with variations, an extended melody which metamorphed into six different moods. It was far more coherent , less complicated than the opening, and always touching.

Nothing, though, could touch the First Violin Concerto, for pure limpidity, for streams of notes and the most wonderful melodies. Supposedly inspired by the rivers of Siberia, the concerto was performed by native Siberian Vadim Repin, a violinist who can at times be ultra-fiery in his performances. Not here, though. That opening theme (which, I believe, should be the opening music if God ever has his own late-night talk show) was built up slowly, then into the quick scherzo, and finally a moderate tempo finale which was lean, lyrical and never ever approached mere lushness.

For an encore, Mr. Repin repeated the second movement. He could have repeated the entire concerto, and nobody would have objected.

I have always avoided (or ignored), Prokofiev’s last symphony. Later, I learned that he had been ill when he wrote it. It is melodic enough, the construction is easy, the few climaxes show the composer at his most adroit, and some of the effects come from his best ballets. But the work seems too self-conscious, too much the composer on auto-pilot, selecting from his vault of songs and placing them in the right direction.

Worst of all, I felt, was the finale, a galop of the Young Soviet School, cheerful, whistleable, third-rate.

But hold!!! For here—like the finale of Monday’s Sixth Symphony—the composer ended with music of almost barren intensity, as if he couldn’t bring himself to end with a lollipop finale. What was this all about??

Later, I read in the program notes that this had been the original ending, then he had been “persuaded” to end it more happily (in line with Soviet dicta), and that only fairly recently had the original ending been given.

As I say, Mr. Gergiev is filled with surprises. To think that we in New York have two further evenings of Prokofiev and Gergiev. Everything else in our world seems somehow insignificant.

Harry Rolnick



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