Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Gergiev smiles Prom 4 Ravel Ustvolskaya

Valery Gergiev in a happy, sunny mood at BBC Prom 4.  Gergiev always springs surprises but this was a surprise beyond expectation. When Gergiev is good, he's very good but when he's bad, he's very, very bad.  This "new" Gergiev should come out more often.

The programme was fairly standard - Ravel, Rachmaninov, Strauss and Ustvolskaya, but Gergiev animated it by emphasizing each composer's individuality.  Fidelity to idiom does matter!  Gergiev is musician enough to know that the score does count, however his  more extremist fans might think.  Thus the discipline with which he conducted Ravel Boléro, observing the progressions as they unfold.  New elements enter as the music builds up until it reaches its climax. Each element adds new flavours, but fundamentally the traverse is defined by the steady beat of the drum, reflected in the strumming pizzicato. In flamenco, rigid rhythmic discipline is part of the style,  creating a ritualized tension that makes the brief flourishes seem even more like explosive release.  As the piece progresses, the energy builds up as a natural result of what's gone before. Just as dancers and athletes train hard to build muscle, Gergiev shows how disciplined conducting serves music much better than fake, flashy "excitement".

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no 3 has a reputation for flamboyant display, but its wonders lie in the piano part. Gergiev wisely gave Behzod Abduraimov pride of place. Abduraimov isn't the most spectacular of players, so the restraint Gergiev brought to the orchestra was sensitive, supporting the soloist.

Galina Ustvolskaya's Symphony no 3 Jesus Messiah, save us!  is based on the life of an 11th-century monk, Hermann of Reichenau, aka "Hermann the cripple" who was born with so many birth defects that he lived in constant pain and had speech defects. Nonetheless, he became a theologian, an astronomer, a mathematician and wrote a treatise on the science of music. He lived to age 44, ancient by the standards of the time and was canonized in 1863.  A paralysed musician without a voice? What a metaphor for a composer in the Soviet era ! 

Ustvolskaya's music is certainly very different from conventional Soviet music, but it does have deeper antecedents and connections.  Pounding blocks of form, percussion-led  rough-hewn sounds and spoken narrative that speaks fire and brimstone (speaker Alexei Petrenko)   Its "primitivism" is deliberate for it evokes the idea of  strength in times of hardship. Petrenko recites so forcefully that it hardly matters whether you speak Russian or not: you can imagine the monk/saint defying the odds stacked against him, firm in his faith in God. 

Ustvolskaya didn't fit in with Soviet convention but her music does have antecedents. She may or may not have known Janáček's Glagolitic Mass but she would have known Stravinsky's Rite of Spring which evokes even older beliefs. She would also have known of Orthodox Church music and the Russian hermit tradition. The "primitivism" in this symphony also connects to Futurism, which flourished in the early years after the Revolution, and produced works like Alexander Mosolov's The Iron Foundry (1925-6) and also influenced film makers like Sergei Eisenstein.  By 1983, when this symphony was written, Ustvolskaya would also have been aware of music in the west,, particularly Messiaen, who also had a thing for huge blocks of rock-solid sound and ecstatic visions of the glory of God.  Ustvolskaya's Third Symnphony is highly individual, and shows that Shostakovich was by no means the only modernist in town

Gergiev still lives in one of the several oligarch enclaves in London, from which he can jetset with ease. Munich is a smaller city,  so chances are he'll spend even less time with the Munich Philharmonic than he did with the LSO, but if he has good rehearsal conductors and musicians he can add the finishing touches.  Like the LSO,the Munich Philharmonic is one of several top notch orchestras working in close proximity and stimulating each other.  In recent years it's been somewhat outshone, but if this prom with Gergiev is anything to go by, good things lie ahead.  And judging from their performance of this Suite from Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, they are teaching Gergiev to be lyrical.

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