Arts & Events

Valery Gergiev Leads Mariinsky Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday November 01, 2018 - 11:52:00 AM

Make no mistake about it. In spite of a well-balanced program of three major works, opening with Claude Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après midi d’un Faune followed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, it was Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which the composer called a “raging sea of sound,” that was the centerpiece of the Mariinsky Orchestra’s Monday night concert, October 22, at Davies Hall. Under the leadership of their Music Director, Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg offered a powerful rendition of Mahler’s groundbreaking Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor. Power was indeed preeminent in Gergiev’s interpretation of this huge, sprawling symphony; and only the lilting simplicity of the famous Adagietto offered a welcome moment of respite from the onslaught of powerful musical ideas issuing from Mahler’s tumultuous score.  

The 5th Symphony’s first movement, a Funeral March, begins with a trumpet playing three fast notes followed by an accented downbeat, thus echoing Beethoven’s famous figure evoking “fate” in his Fifth Symphony. Mahler uses this four-note figure throughout his opening movement; and the Mariinsky Orchestra’s Principal Trumpeter, Timur Martynov, did yeoman’s duty. There follows a second movement, marked “Stormily, with greatest vehemence,” that presents screeching brass and winds in a chaotic maelstrom. Both the first and second movements end with pizzicato figures in the strings. The third movement, a huge Scherzo, opens with vigorous horn calls, incisively performed by Principal Horn Player Stanislav Tses. There ensues a rustic dance figure evoking an Austrian Ländler, followed by an urbane waltz theme. Now comes the wondrously lyrical Adagietto, featuring strings and harp. There was wonderful sound in this Adagietto from the Mariinsky Orchestra’s cello and bass sections; and harpist Sofia Kiprskaya offered notes that were truly angelic. The Rondo-Finale opens with more horn calls, soon giving way to a Bach-like fugue in the strings. The work then builds to a triumphant conclusion, boisterously performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra. As the music came to a close, one could hear the audience take a deep breath, as if overwhelmed by the power and scope of all the music they had just heard. Then the audience broke into thunderous applause, gratefully acknowledged by Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra musicians. 

Earlier, in the first half of this concert, power was also evident, perhaps all too evident. Debussy’s shimmering Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune is a work that should be given a light touch, almost a gossamer texture. Here, it came off a bit heavy-handed, thereby losing much of its air of magic and mystery. Power was also the theme of the day in pianist Denis Matsuev’s interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra. Matsuev is a giant of a man, and his strength as a pianist is, well, strength. Matsuev exudes power, and one almost fears at times he may destroy the keyboard under the massive blows from his powerful hands. (I had this distinct impression back in November 2017 when I heard Matsuev perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at Zellerbach Hall with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra.) Granted, there is plenty of opportunity for a pianist to display power in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’s just that Denis Matsuev’s power is so overwhelmingly fore-grounded that the listener can easily pass over without notice the softer, more subtle elements in the music being played. Fortunately, Matsuev had the good sense to show off this softer side of his own musical personality – and of Rachmaninoff’s – by playing as an encore this composer’s Études-Tableaux, Opus 39, No. 2 in A minor, a soft and tender piece that was very much welcome in this concert, which featured plenty of power and little finesse.