tue 25/06/2019

Mariinsky Orchestra, Gergiev, Cadogan Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Mariinsky Orchestra, Gergiev, Cadogan Hall

Mariinsky Orchestra, Gergiev, Cadogan Hall

Prokofiev's 125th marked with mostly workaday playing

Conductor Valery Gergiev: celebrating the Prokofiev anniversary in 17 countries Marco Borggreve / Decca

This year, Valery Gergiev is marking the Prokofiev 125th anniversary with concerts and projects in no fewer than 17 countries. Yet much of last night’s concert, the first of a three-night stint in London, made this whole endeavour feel more like a duty than either an imperative – or a pleasure. 

The buzz that was around in London concerning the Mariinsky (then the Kirov) in the mid-Nineties, when they dazzled audiences in unfamiliar repertoire, has long gone. Gergiev himself is now very familiar indeed: he'll be popping back here within two months to conduct Prokofiev again, with the LSO. With the 950-capacity Cadogan Hall not much more than half full, this concert – which started 15 minutes late – was a low-key affair. 

This is an orchestra that doesn’t seem to worry about its rough edges. The players don’t so much tune when they arrive on stage, as greet each other with miscellaneous sounds which happen to include a few concert A’s. (Harpists, as ever, are a special breed and an exception to this. They tune a lot.) The predictable result was – for example – some sour flute tuning in the evening’s opening work, the First (Classical) Symphony from 1916-17. Gergiev can on other occasions drive this piece mischievously fast, keeping it light, injecting fun into it, but this was a tired and uncommitted read-through, also marred by some wayward string ensemble in the molto vivace finale.

Gergiev and the Mariinsky players did not make a particularly strong case for the Prokofiev Second Symphony of 1924-25 either. The strings made the most of some of the lyrical and expressive passages in the variations, but the modernist episodes came across as too monochrome and static, and there was not much evidence of the textures having been explored or refined. 

The First Violin Concerto had as soloist the Hungarian Kristóf Baráti (pictured above by Marco Borggreve). His tone – in Cadogan Hall’s not simple acoustic – seemed pallid. He played from a score, and seemed to be putting more effort into delivering accompaniment figures with cleanness and clarity than into the more important stuff, such as shaping the long lyrical lines into a convincing story, or treating them with the affection they need. There is simply more cantabile melody and expression and contour in this piece, particularly in the second movement, than Baráti appeared to want the listener to believe. The most delightful playing in the second movement emerged from a far from obvious source: the Mariinsky’s tuba player, as he swayed from side to side, brought playful rhythmic buoyancy. 

The last work didn’t start till after 9:30pm, by which time some audience members had left, and many others seemed disengaged, either reading the programme or getting their smartphones out, but this final part contained the strongest and certainly the most effectively and expressively played music of the evening. The Third Symphony, based on The Fiery Angel, Prokofiev's opera about demonic possession, brought out what is the most convincing in Gergiev’s way with Prokofiev, his tendency to harry the work forward, to bring on those climaxes and intensity build-ups, to let his trumpets sneer and his lower brass roar, to revel in the harshness of textures – such as the snarling of oboes and trumpets combined in the first  movement. The final apocalyptic vision at the end of the piece was highly effective. But it had been a very long wait to get there. 

  • The three Mariinsky Orchestra concerts this week are part of the Zurich International Ochestra Series. The Mariinsky UK tour is supported by BP

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