Saturday, October 1, 2016
Last week, a Munich critic broke silence over the unrehearsed state of concerts conducted by Valery Gergiev, who is music director of the city’s philharmonic orchestra. The London Times has now chimed in. Critic Anna Picard writes today: It seems reasonable to assume that everyone on stage at the Cadogan Hall knew the notes in front of them. This was the first of three all-Prokofiev programmes from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra: musicians who have grown up with this music and know its virtues, its vicissitudes, its mood swings and contradictory voices. Precision has never been part of the Gergiev-Mariinsky rough magic package. While not exactly sight-reading, the orchestra played as though rehearsing for the first time, without stopping to correct infelicities of articulation, intonation, blend, balance and ensemble. Rough, apparently, and by no means ready. Read full review here (paywall).
Anna Picard: “Precision has never been part of the Gergiev-Mariinsky rough magic package. While not exactly sight-reading, the orchestra played as though rehearsing for the first time, without stopping to correct infelicities of articulation, intonation, blend, balance and ensemble. If authenticity is sounding like a mutinous scratch band in Cherepovets, this performance had plenty of it. You could argue that Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony benefits from a casual approach. But oh, the vinegar! You could souse herrings in chords like these.”
Cadogan Hall, London An all-Prokofiev programme celebrating his 125th anniversary didn’t do the composer many favoursSingle-composer programmes are always a risk. This one was the first instalment of Valery Gergiev’s Prokofiev symphony cycle with the Mariinsky Orchestra, in honour of the composer’s 125th anniversary. Sadly, it didn’t do the birthday boy many favours.Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No 1 is a work whose sheer exuberance can survive more or less any treatment. Gergiev kept its particular brand of energy turned low, opting for a cooler neoclassical mode, with minutely controlled articulation in the strings and woodwind. His tempi were pointedly moderate, until a hectic reading of the final movement. Continue reading...
A review in the Abendzeitung attacks the music director for his cursory rehearsal practices. The performance of Beethoven’s Eroica was, writes Robert Braunmüller, ‘casually improvised’. Textures were cloudy, ensemble flawed. The Munich Philharmonic sounded shoddy. Gergiev’s pianist, his pal Denis Matsuev, received a similar drubbing. Gergiev’s rehearsal absences are well attested, but in all his years with the LSO I don’t remember London critics calling him out so frankly. Read here. Not drowning but waving.
At the Musikfest Berlin, Valery Gergiev conducted the Münchner Philharmoniker in Galina Ustvolskaya's Symphony no 3 "Jesus Messaih, save us!" with Shostakovich Symphony no 4. A musically astute programme, much wiser that the odd ragbag Gergiev and the Müncheners had to do at thr Proms in July where Ustvolskaya's remarkable piece was buried in crowd-pleasing Strauss and Rachmaninoff. Ustvolskaya's piece is powerful but forbidding and really needs to be heard in proper context, not submerged in the ragbag mix the Proms inflicted on Gergiev. In Berlin, he could give Ustvolskya the prominence her music deserves, and present it in proper context. Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) was an outsider, her career so restrained that, in comparison, Shostakovich was almost a matinee idol. But as this symphony shows, isolation intensified her originality. The power of this work lies in its emotional honesty, built on the foundations of unshakeable faith. Ustvolskaya's Symphony no 3 Jesus Messiah, save us! is based on the life of an 11th-century monk, Hermann of Reichenau, aka "Hermann the cripple" who was born with so many birth defects that he lived in constant pain and had speech defects. Nonetheless, he became a theologian, an astronomer, a mathematician and wrote a treatise on the science of music. He lived to age 44, ancient by the standards of the time and was canonized in 1863. A paralyzed musician without a voice? What a metaphor for a composer in the Soviet era! Not for nothing, Ustvolskaya's Symphony no 3 evolves from a single, unaccompanied voice. Alexei Petrenko (pictured with Gergiev at the Proms performance) intones the text with uncompromising gravity, as if his voice has materialized from an ancient past. Thus the austerity of the orchestration, and the utterly uncompromising nature of the work, closer to Orthodox traditions than to medieval Europe. The instruments operate in tight units: five basses, five trumpets, five oboes, three tubas, three percussion desks, with large timpani and smaller, militaristic drums. Thus a sense of ritual, a sense of unshakeable austerity, pitting the solo voice against small but strong forces. The piano mediates, sometimes supporting the idea of a wayward individual, yet also employed as percussion, with long drawn sequences of ostinato, a lone trombone wailing balefully long lines against the piano's firm "footsteps". "Save us, save us" Petrenko whispers, (in Russian) his eyes raised upwards, as if listening for a sign, as the music quickly dissipates into silence. Whether or not Shostakovich compromised with the Stalinist regime, he managed to balance on the edge. Ustvolskaya wasn't sent to Siberia, but seems to have struggled on in a kind of external exile. Shostakoviuch dominates to such an extent that it masks the originality of Ustvolskaya's idiom. She and Shostakovich didn't get on for various reasons. In any case, the integrity in her music comes from very deep sources. Thus she's closer to Stravinsky and the "primitivism" of the Rite of Spring, and to the brief explosion of modernity which flourished in the early years after the Revolution, and produced works like Alexander Mosolov's The Iron Foundry (1925-6) Ustvolskaya's music even connects to the fierce awkwardness of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, and indeed to Messiaen's ground-breaking masterpieces like Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Boulez was a great interpreter of Stravinsky, Janáček and Messiaen, so his disdain for Shostakovich needs to be appreciated in context. Maybe one day, when modern music is better understood, we can see things from a wider perspective. Follow this link HERE to a discussion of Ustvolskaya, her place in Soviet music and her relation to Shostakovich. Also, this excellent documentary, made when Ustvolskya was, at last, being valued for her own sake. She was nearly 90 when the film was made but her mind is sharp. She knows who Reinbert de Leeuw is and what he stands for. With Gergiev's championship of Ustvolskaya, perhaps now her time has come. She was famously sniffy about some Soviet-era performances of her work, and with good reason, from what I've heard, but Gergiev is sophisticated enough to get it. Even though Gergiev turned up nearly 20 minutes late, not at all long by his track record, as soon as he reached the stage he snapped into form. Extremely tightly focussed, a performance informed by the same kind of mental and emotional discipline Ustvolskaya insisted upon. This Berlin performance was so much stronger that the London performance seemed sloppy in comparison. Catch it on The Digital Concert Hall when it's rebroadcast in a few days. Gergiev is unpredictable. When he's bad, he's very bad but when he's good, he's very good. The skill of a listener is to recognize which is which. Gergiev has been conducting Shostakovich forever, hardly surprising, since the composer, who once had to compromise with the Soviets, is now thoroughly mainstream. So this Shostakovich Symphony no 4 was rewarding, since Gergiev knows it like the back of his hand. The interest, this time round, was his relationship with the Münchner Philharmoniker, whose Chief Conductor he's become. The Munich Philharmonc is quite different from the London Symphony Orchestra, which Gergiev headed for ten years. So far, so good. I like the sound. Though Gergiev will conduct regularly in Munich, he'll still be based in London, where airline connections are better than in Munich, so he can commute between his various bases in oligarch enclaves all over the world.
As the BBC Proms at last flicker into life, in Germany the Musikfest Berlin gets under way.. Over 19 days, 27 events featuring 70 works of around 35 composers, performed by 20 orchestras, instrumental and vocal ensembles and soloists. Full programme here, reflecting the concept that audiences are mature enough to handle real music, as Sir Henry Wood believed a hundred years ago, instead of the Potato Fudge the Proms have descended into this year (bar a few outstanding performances). But those of us who can't get to Berlin (largely sold out, in any case), some concerts will be broadcast via the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall (List here) Listen live, because the broadcasts may be available for only 24 hours. On Saturday I caught Wolfgang Rihm's Tutuguri with Daniel Harding and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. This piece is legend, but not easy to pull off because it requires a huge orchestra, a whole row of percussion desks and elaborate off-stage effects Rihm's model for Tutuguri was a piece by by Antonin Artaud, the actor and theatre theorist whose ideas have great influence on modern theatre, film, dance and music. Artaud believed that communication could exist on multiple levels. Texts don't have to be spoken, nor even rational. In Tutuguri, the soloist and invisible choir (on tape) utter sounds in single syllable bursts of staccato, which don't have meaning in themselves: it's up to the audience to intuit the connections themselves. If, of course, there "is" any meaning we can deduce. Artaud was fascinated by primal states of experience that cannot be articulated - hence the animalistic grunts and piercing screams. Orchestra and singers all on the same communal level. Rihm's use of percussion is absolutely deliberate. because percussion reflects the rhythms of the human body, heartbeats, breathing, movement. This performance was exceptionally muscular and physical, yet mesmerizing just as the rite it (sort of) describes would have been. Savage as the subject may be, performance needs to be accurate and extremely tightly focussed or the whole point is missed. This performance was so powerful that it far eclipsed Kent Nagano and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican last year (read my piece here). The narrator, Graham Forbes Valentine, who bore a disconcerting resemblance to Artaud, was so forceful that he seemed possessed, the tightness of his articulation like an elemental force oif nature. Luckily I was able to watch it three times through before Digital Concert Hall pulled it. Explains why I'm too tired to write about Rossini Semiramide at the Proms, which I loved. So don't miss the next livestream on Tuesday 6/9 when Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in Shostakovich Symphony no 4 and Galina Ustvolskaya's Symphony no 3 "Jesus Messiah, save us", which I wrote about in July HERE. A striking piece I can't wait to hear again. Ivan Fischer and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin on 8/9 with Hans Werner Henze I vitalino raddoppiato for violin (Julia Fischer) and chamber orchestra. A beautifully expressive piece which could easily stand up to Bruckner 7, which I heard last week with Haitink and RCOA livestreamed from Amsterdam. Andris Nelsons conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker on Saturday 10th in Debussy Prélude à lʼaprès-midi dʼun faune, Edgard Varèse Arcana and Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. An intelligent programme presented, no doubt, with flair and extremely high musical standards. More Varèse (Déserts) and Ligeti (Violin Concerto, Pekka Kuuisto) the next day with Jonathan Nott and the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie , followed by Beethoven 3 Eroica. Then Dudamel Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie. I heard this a few months back, but it's really for fans of the conductor rather than fans of the music. Kirill Petrenko conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester on 14/9 in Ligeti Lontano, Bartók Violin Concero no 1 (Frank Peter Zimmermann) and Richard Strauss Sinfonia domestica. Good combination, should be good. Then John Adams conducts an all John Adams concert on 17/9.