Arts & Events

Valery Gergiev Leads Mariinsky Orchestra in All-Russian Concert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 10, 2017 - 02:51:00 PM

The Mariinsky Orchestra, formerly the Kirov, presented two concerts under the auspices of Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Saturday-Sunday, November 4-5, with their General Director Valery Gergiev conducting. I attended Saturday evening’s concert featuring an all-Russian program. Leading off was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70. This symphony, written in 1945 as World War II was coming to an end, was hardly the epic victory celebration the Soviet Union’s musical watchdogs wanted. Instead, it was a cheerful, effervescent symphony that stands out as one of Shostakovich’s most accessible works. Initially nominated for a Stalin Prize, Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony was later banned from performance for a few years, thereby mirroring the on-again off-again treatment Shostakovich received over and over throughout his career from Stalinist-era bureaucrats. 

In five movements, the 9th Symphony begins with wry humor then takes on a more reflective mood in the second movement, which features a pensive clarinet motif over a pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. The third movement, marked Presto, offers an ironically dizzying scherzo. Next comes the heavily bass-inflected fourth movement, which also features a plaintive solo for bassoon, beautifully played by principal bassoonist Rodion Tolmachev. The symphony concludes with a playful Allegretto with a hint of irony underlying the good humor. Conductor Gergiev led the Mariinsky Orchestra in a taut, energetic reading of Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony. 

Next on the program was Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, with Russian pianist Denis Matsuev as soloist. This was my first opportunity to hear Denis Matsuev, and he made quite an impression. Standing well over six feet tall, Matsuev is a broad-shouldered individual who towered over Valery Gergiev. Matsuev’s keyboard manner exudes power, and Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto offered Matsuev plenty of opportunities to show off his power. He was particularly impressive in the extended piano solo of the first movement. The second movement offered a brief, dizzying scherzo, and the third movement featured a loping rhythm throughout, making it sound as if pianist and orchestra were striding along side-by-side. The Finale offered shifting dynamics and a variety of moods, with wry humor predominating in the end. In response to the audience’s hearty applause, Denis Matsuev showed off a more delicate side in one of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Preludes. 

After intermission, Gergiev returned to lead the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 43, “The Divine Poem,” by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Having begun his career by composing many short pieces for piano, Scriabin later turned to writing symphonic poems. Influenced largely by Chopin in his piano works, Scriabin wholeheartedly turned to Wagner for inspiration in composing his orchestral works. Scriabin even fell for Wagner’s mystical wallowings, and after reading Nietzsche and dabbling in Theosophy, Scriabin began to view himself as the new Messiah, ready “to sound the final chord of our race, reuniting it with the Spirit.” He planned to introduce his musico-philosophical “Mystery” to the world by giving a concert in a globular temple by a lake in India, a plan that never saw fruit. Traces of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Superman can be found in Scriabin’s 3rd Symphony, especially in the first movement’s struggles (marked in French as Luttes) as the individual strives to free himself from submission to a god and become a free man-god or Superman. In the second section, marked Voluptés in French, Scriabin tried to depict pantheistic man losing his identity in the pleasures of nature; and in the final section, marked Jeu divin in French (Divine Play), Scriabin sought to express the enlightened individual at one with the Universe and enjoying the free play of creativity. 

Musically, Scriabin’s symphonic poems are puzzlingly amorphous. In the 3rd Symphony, music repeatedly swells up, then subsides, then swells up again, only to subside once more, then go though the whole pattern again and again. One is reminded of Bruckner’s symphonies, except for the fact that Bruckner had a very solid and unique notion of orchestral architectonics, something utterly lacking in Scrianbin’s symphonies. Scriabin offers waves of sound and a vague sense of yearning, and that’s all he offers. The mystical underpinnings are puerile. Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky Orchestra in a keenly sympathetic reading of Scriabin’s divagations, but to my mind this work went nowhere.