in: Reviews

March 28, 2009

Prokofiev from LSO and Gergiev: Powerful, Profound

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The London Symphony Orchestra, in midst of a demanding 35-event tour of the world’s concert halls, landed in Boston last Wednesday, March 23rd, after setting West Coast, New York and Chicago audiences abuzz with concerts devoted to Sergei Prokofiev, a composer dear to the orchestra’s 2007-appointed Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev. The concert was presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Gergiev zealously champions Prokofiev wherever he conducts, whether that be in Russia at the Mariiski (née Kirov) Theater, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, or his many guest appearances with the world’s leading orchestras. He considers Prokofiev an unjustly neglected composer and has mounted a campaign to right this wrong. The LSO is his present supporter in this campaign – the Orchestra’s world tour is largely devoted to performances of all seven of Prokofiev’s symphonies, as well as several of the composer’s concerti for piano and violin.

As the concert’s opener, Gergiev and pianist Alexi Volodin played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, op. 73, “Emperor,” in a performance remarkable for the brilliant pianism of Volodin, and the sensitive, buoyant and lively accompaniment from the LSO. While perhaps too soon to judge Volodin on the basis of one hearing – I want to hear him play Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov before passing judgment on his overall musicianship – it was evident that this young pianist has technique to burn, offering glittering passagework at high velocity which served well in this concerto’s brilliant introductory measures. Yet, the “Emperor” is not only “about” velocity, to be sure. There were times when one longed for a bit more profundity from this pianist, a bit more involvement with that which lies below the surface. That longing was temporarily assuaged when the LSO strings began the concerto’s second movement with the most ravishing pianissimo playing one could hope for. One of Beethoven’s most heartfelt Adagios, its nobility, world-solacing quiet and thoughtful repose was heard more from the orchestra than the pianist, though the give-and-take between them was commendable.

Brilliance returned for the “Rondo,” and at its very end, one marveled at the scope of Beethoven’s creativity when the famous ever-softening tympani strokes were evoked just prior to the movement’s triumphant ending. LSO timpanist Nigel Thomas played this wondrous duet with the piano soloist with extraordinary grace of touch and wonderful dynamic shading. During the enthusiastic applause at the work’s end, he was rightly offered a solo bow.

The orchestra reappeared in much greater number after intermission to face the challenge of Prokofiev’s great Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, op. 100, the American premiere of which was offered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the very same stage in November, 1945. Much has been written about this work – how it was composed during World War II, how the music reflects the anxieties of a war-torn country and populace, and how Prokofiev conceived the work as “a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit.” While the Symphony does indeed seem to embody much of the foregoing, the overall effect of the music is of a hard-fought and desperate triumph, paid at a terrible price.

The work is composed in four movements, an introductory “Andante” and “Allegro,” a daemonic “Allegro marcato” scherzo, a tragic “Adagio” (the music’s emotional heart) and an innocently-titled “Allegro giacoso” finale, which morphs into a reckless, driven, and frightening ride into the abyss at its conclusion.

This performance was the finest of this work that I have heard.

The symphony’s quiet opening was sculpted by Gergiev to give a palpable sense of something impending, from the very first bars. Perhaps the quietness of the playing, perhaps the rumbling underpinning of the orchestra’s low instruments – tuba and bass drum play very important roles in this symphony – perhaps the perfectly shaded dynamics of the LSO’s resplendent strings, perhaps the glowering presence of the trumpet playing in a very low register…? The important thing was that a definite mood was created, a mood of something important – perhaps foreboding – about to come our way. As the music progressed, one began to sense the composer’s plan through Gergiev’s lens; this first movement of many colors and seemingly disparate moments was to serve as a comprehensive introduction to what would be heard in the following three movements. The LSO and Gergiev were to be our guides on this journey, and one was impressed by the extraordinary control and virtuosic playing of this legendary ensemble’s many gifted players. They had played this symphony many times before, yet seemed eager to share its riches again.

The Scherzo was thrilling, taken very fast, its driven, motoric forward motion a wonder as played by this extraordinary orchestra. Prokofiev interrupts this motion about midway with a seemingly sarcastic trio, its slower theme twice intoned by high-pitched, keening clarinets and woodwinds. Between these slower moments which act as bookends, Prokofiev ingeniously recalls the rapid scherzo tempo played largely sotto-voce and tossed between the strings, piano, trumpet, woodblock, and other percussion. A sense of parody is clearly perceived. After the final return of the wailing clarinets, Prokofiev engages one of this symphony’s most memorable strokes: menacing low-register staccato trumpets and pizzicato strings begin a slow-tempo, chilling dialogue, growing in intensity with biting sforzandi and leading to a thrilling accelerando. With the rapid, driven music heard earlier, the movement hurtles toward its striking, collision-like conclusion. The LSO followed Gergiev’s – and Prokofiev’s – roadmap with a combination of fierceness and aplomb.

The heart of this Prokofiev’s fifth symphony lies in its third movement, a composition more resignedly tragic than the saddest moments in the composer’s heartfelt score for Romeo and Juliet. Here Gergiev demonstrated his full realization of this deepest of tragedies. A movement of dark, sometimes muttering, sometimes tearfully unrelenting pathos, this Adagio is filled with doleful and soul-wrenching music. One example: several times a heartbreakingly plaintive, soaring musical line set very high for violins doubled by piccolo wails out from the orchestra, embodying, one feels, a great unresolved and painful unhappiness. Another: near this movement’s center, a heavy triplet rhythm wells up and is pounded out by full orchestra, leading to two howled out and crashingly dissonant chords. These unsettling chords are joined by crushing blows of tam-tam and low brass. Gergiev and his orchestra summoned a mighty energy for this, and the effect was overwhelming. Ultimately, though, it was the impact of the extraordinarily emotional arch, so well planned by Gergiev and so totally realized by his players that elevated this performance to sublimity.

The final movement begins quietly, lyrically, innocently. Then, at the Allegro Giacoso tempo mark, ‘cellos and violas begin a quick, quiet, rhythmically charged motif which forms an accompaniment for a jauntily disjunct riff for solo clarinet. Loud, skittering violins answer this impertinence, and thus begin the many handoffs between strings and winds which are to follow. It all seems innocent enough as the music races forward, but the pleasant, hypnotically motoric “train ride” begins to get a little dicey. Dissonances accrue, grotesqueries dance by, and before we know it, the headlong dash becomes even more charged. Prokofiev is a master of building suspense (think the “Battle on Ice” prelude from Alexander Nevsky), and he doesn’t disappoint here. As the excitement piles on, the ride becomes wilder, careening. In a final burst of crescendo energy, the movement propels itself to an explosive conclusion. The virtuosity of the LSO throughout was a wonder to hear, and the audience roared out its approval. After several curtain calls, Gergiev and his orchestra offered an encore: the dazzlingly orchestrated “March” from Prokofiev’s ironically humorous opera, The Love for Three Oranges, another Koussevitzky/BSO specialty. Did Symphony Hall’s wood and plaster recall another old friend?

After all of the bravos, though, one is left to ponder: is this truly “a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit” as the composer has characterized it, or is “grandeur” an intended ironic choice of word? One remembers that the Soviet Union, in its zeal to force all its artists to conform to the ideal it imposed, that all things artistic should serve the state, once criticized Prokofiev thus: “He creates the most beautiful of swans, then insists on stepping on its neck.”

Had Prokofiev sent his performers and listeners a subversive hidden message with this remarkable and unrelenting work?

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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