Saturday, October 19, 2013

Gergiev Times Two: Evening One—Shostakovich

Last Friday night, we heard Valery Gergiev lead the Mariinsky Orchestra in music of Shostakovich at Carnegie Hall. It was Joshua’s first-ever visit to Carnegie Hall.

The composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 8 comprised the program. Denis Matsuev was soloist.

We last heard Gergiev in March 2009 in Boston, leading the London Symphony in music of Beethoven and Prokofiev. We last heard Matsuev in April 2009 in Boston, playing music of Rachmaninoff with The National Philharmonic Of Russia under Vladimir Spivakov.

Matsuev is not so much a pianist as a man who pounds keyboards. There was no pleasure to be gained in hearing Matsuev blast his way through Shostakovich’s lightweight, empty exercise in “jazz” writing. (Shostakovich’s idea of “jazz”’ is what Americans regard as salon music, ideal to accompany afternoon teas in palm courts of fading hotels.)

In both outer movements of the concerto, there were ensemble problems between soloist and orchestra, no doubt because conductor and soloist were unable to agree on tempi. Such lapses were inexcusable—the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 is the least-demanding piano concerto in the entire repertory, requiring absolutely no virtuosity from soloist, orchestra or conductor. The composer, in possession of very modest keyboard skills, had written the concerto in “popular” style as a vehicle for his own personal use. The concerto’s concise if not bare-boned instrumentation, capable of being played by a chamber orchestra, may be attributed to the composer’s need to tour the piece widely, playing with a variety of small provincial ensembles of low quality, in order to earn performance fees.

What we heard at Carnegie was a throwaway performance of a very weak piece of music, one of the very weakest to have come from the composer’s pen. The performance was unworthy of serious attention.

Nonetheless, the Carnegie Hall audience gave the pianist a prolonged standing ovation—and, pursuant to audience demand, there were even two solo encores (Liadov, Grieg). The audience was, I believe, primed to convince itself that it was hearing something important.

Shostakovich’s three “panoramic” symphonies—the Seventh, Eighth and Eleventh—are inherently problematic, entirely dependent upon performers of genius if they are not to sound weakly-constructed and assembled from feeble materials and feeble ideas. I have never heard a truly fine live performance of any of the three.

In the Shostakovich Eighth, Gergiev was, as always, Gergiev: blatantly, blaringly obvious. Musical line and musical tension were not on display so much as a constant search for climaxes—of which Gergiev found far more in the score than other conductors are able to locate. I thought Gergiev’s leadership was abysmal if not embarrassing, always trying to obtain louder and louder fortissimos while musical tension dissipated, minute-by-minute, bar-by-bar. The climax-plagued performance put me in mind of Victor Hugo’s maxim: “Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.”

The Mariinsky Orchestra is not a virtuoso ensemble on the level of Cleveland, Chicago or Philadelphia—and it is inferior to Russia’s finest orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, itself far from the last word in terms of perfection of execution and beauty of sound. (We last heard the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic in April 2011 in Boston; we shall hear that orchestra again in February in New York.)

Among American orchestras, the Mariinsky reminded me of the San Francisco Symphony: both orchestras offer roughhewn, unsophisticated playing; both orchestras favor sheer mass of sound above transparency and translucency; and both orchestras find more fulfillment in dogged displays of power and energy than the more subtle pursuits of finesse and refinement.

It was not a good evening at Carnegie Hall—except for the box office, which made a killing. With surcharges, we had to pay $161.00 per ticket, surely the most we’ve ever laid out for concert tickets. Even the Berlin Philharmonic, appearing in Boston in November 2009, had set us back only $103.50 per ticket—and, disappointing as had been the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle, the Berlin under Rattle had been a vast sight better than the Mariinsky under Gergiev.


In the early 1990s, when Gergiev’s fees were still low, Gergiev appeared with some frequency in Minneapolis, leading the Minnesota Orchestra.

I was too young to attend concerts at the time, but my parents remember Gergiev’s Minnesota days. My parents recall that Gergiev obtained better results from the Minnesota musicians than the dull and dour (and profoundly unimaginative) Edo de Waart, then Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

However, my parents also relate that Gergiev’s Minnesota performances offered interpretations no less crude than his current ones.

That said, the man has undeniable intensity . . . a quality that, in itself, does not necessarily translate into good performances.

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