Friday, 25 July 2014

Gergiev Janáček Glagolitic Mass Prom LSO

At  Prom 9 Valery Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO are an excellent orchestra, whose musicians have worked together, and with Gergiev, for many years. Earlier in the week, Gergiev conducted the World Orchestra For Peace, made up of musicians from 75 different ensembles who meet roughly once a year. WOP publicity made much of the fact that many of them were principals in their own orchestras. But there is no way in the world  that 75 orchestra are going to be of the same quality, or have the same standards, even with a few really good musicians among them for strengthening, like the LSO leader.  With the WOP, Gergiev's job was to hold the unwieldy unit together, hoping at least for cohesion.  With the LSO, he can be an artist, with musicians he knows can be challenged to great things. What a difference a good orchestra makes!

If an orchestra is about musicianship, the LSO delivered, superbly. Barry Douglas was the soloist in Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor. Douglas played with verve, confident that the orchestra would support him. It must have been as much of a joy for Gergiev to conduct this as it was to listen to.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass was, however, the main draw. The Royal Albert Hall is made for monumental works like this, allowing the performers to throw themselves into its spirit with all the force they can muster. In Czech tradition, thousands would gather at religious festivals to worship by singing together, with the fervour of communal affirmation. No ifs, buts or maybes in such circumstances. "Gospodi pomiluj gospodi pomiluj" the chorus repeat, whipped into delirious frenzy,. It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe with intensity. Perhaps that's why Janáček used an ancient Slavonic language no-one actually speaks and used it in a way that would drive scholars crazy. It's the ferocity of belief that matters. Janáček, an atheist who knew all about playing in churches, aimed for something quite specifically non-churchy. His passion for nature and the outdoors inspires the piece. "My cathedral ", he said, was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”.

Wisely, Gergiev chose Paul Wingfield's reconstruction of the original version of the piece, which captures its audacious wildness in all its rough-hewn glory. This isn't nearly as well-known as the more conventional later version. It's shockingly modern, while also accessing the traditions of the Primitive Church. Pierre Boulez conducted it at the Proms in 2008 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, an  experience etched forever in my memory. The piece is almost as if Janáček's cathedral were being built in sound. Those powerful, pounding brasses, the upward, thrusting rhythms, cascading rivulets of sound sparkling like light through the giant trees in the forest, the chorus intoxicated by faith.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass suits Gergiev's temperament, too. Boulez articulated the waving, angular cross-rhythms, showing the strength in Janáček's structure, from which firm base the excitement in the singing can emerge. Gergiev goes for a blunter approach, details more muted, but equally strong.. Possibly this way the piece connects more to pan-Slavic tradition and the Russian composers whom Janáček, would have been familiar with. Janáček was so fervently pro-Russian that he placed his beliefs above the welfare of his daughter. The photo shows the saints of the Slavonic Church revealing the gospels.

This interpretation suits the more lyrical passages in the music. The choruses and female soloists (Mlada Khudoley and Yulia Matochkina) produced beautiful sounds, like the "scent of the forest" the composer was referring to. Mikhail Vekua, the tenor, negotiated the extremes of the part nicely. Yuri Vorobiev sang the bass part.  Given the volume of sound around them, the soloists came over clearly. Strain isn't by any means inappropriate in this music given its quasi-savagery. Gergiev, though, adopts a sheen more in keeping with the neo-primitivism of Stravinsky, and the spirit of  much of Janáček's  other music. How I'd like to hear Gergiev conduct The Cunning Little Vixen It's a perfectly valid approach,  gentler on the voices, particularly the choruses, though the organ sounded oddly incongruous in context.  Thomas Trotter showed just how powerful the organ part can be, separate from the orchestra.  His Varhany sólo was extraordinarily explosive, yet dignified and controlled. Perhaps the organ is the voice of God, bursting through ? Or the voice of Janáček, the former church organist, who knew the spiritual power of abstract music.

Claire Seymour's review is HERE IN OPERA TODAY


Unknown said...

I have to disagree regarding the 'reconstruction' of the Glagolitic. I much prefer the modern version, have several different CDs and have also heard it live..the last time in 2011 at the Proms. I found this 'reconstruction' constantly jarred and fervently wished I had not gone. Compared to the soloists in 2011, I found the soloists in this performance, with the exception of the bass, sadly lacking. The soprano particularly screechy and with too much vibrato.

I thought that maybe it was because of where I was sitting and so listened again to the re-broadcast the next day. I lasted ten minutes before I turned off.

Doundou Tchil said...

That's OK. You probably wont want to read books on the background, but a lot of people like the original version. In fact a lot of people like both versions and different conductors approaches. Indeed I can't imagine serious Janacek fans not wanting bto learn from the differences.