S&H Concert review

PROM 50: Wagner, Schoenberg & Scriabin, Alexander Toradze (piano), Vladimir Vaneev (bass), Crouch End Festival Chorus, Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, 28 August 2001 (CC)


Despite featuring a major visiting orchestra, there was a surprising amount of space in the stalls at this Prom due to untaken seats. Even the Prommers in the amphitheatre had room to breathe. Surely this should not be, given the high standing of maestro Gergiev? Could it possibly be the presence of Schoenberg in the programme, still scaring people off?

Whatever the reason, this was a concert of extremes. Gergiev’s Schoenberg was exemplary, his Scriabin exceptional. But his Wagner …

To compare and contrast Gergiev and Boulez live in Schoenberg’s Pelleas was instructive (see Richard Whitehouse’s review of Boulez’ account in March 2000 with the LSO in ‘Seen and Heard’). Gergiev achieved an almost Boulez-like clarity with the various strands expertly delineated, whilst simultaneously adding on an emotional layer which brought this example of extreme Romanticism to life. From the shadowy opening with its beautiful woodwind contributions to the magical, spellbindingly fragmented coda, Gergiev gripped one’s attention like a vice. Unafraid of shying away from the larger-than-life emotions of the score, climaxes reached enormous proportions (miraculously without losing any of the detail). The whole was held together by the undeniable charisma of Gergiev. Everything was fused into a seamless whole.

Scriabin’s voluptuous Prometheus: The Poem of Fire received its first Proms performance since 1981. The orchestra was technically superb, but it is a tribute to their success that one hardly noticed, as the music swept the audience away in a vortex of chromaticism. It was in 1905 that Scriabin discovered the mystical, theosophical teachings of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and the all-encompassing, universal thought-processes of her theories inform his subsequent pieces. Light, directed primarily at the organ area, followed Scriabin’s instruction for a Clavier à lumières. Gergiev followed the sweep of the score to perfection, the orchestra responding glowingly and confidently (these forces recorded this score on Philips 446 715-2 in 1997). The piano soloist, Alexander Toradze (placed at the front of the orchestra) is a Scriabin player par excellence, a superb mix of power when necessary and at other times the most affecting delicacy. Even the chorus at the end did not sound like a Star Trek soundtrack, as can so easily happen. Instead, the effect was truly apocalyptic.

If only the concert had ended there. The programme referred to Gergiev reintroducing the music of Wagner into the St Petersburg repertoire. On the evidence of this, he might do better to leave the Master alone. The Prelude to Act Three of Meistersinger that opened the evening gave some clues as to what might happen. Despite a long-breathed opening and beautifully balanced, richly toned brass chorales, there was an underlying current of superficiality. Details remained in the memory, but not the whole. Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music, the close to Act Three of Walküre, confirmed all doubts. Admittedly, the baritone Vladimir Vaneev (a Kirov principal who has tackled Boris, Pimen and Klingsor) was somewhat to blame. His voice is too light to be a leader of Gods, lacking the imposing qualities any Wotan requires: passages such as ‘Mit zehrenden Schrecken/Scheuch’es den Zagen’ (‘with pain and terror may they daunt the faint-hearted’) counted for nothing.

Much worse was Gergiev’s almost wilful misreading of the score. Important, structure-articulating harmonic changes were glossed over. The fast speed might have been acceptable in the context of the entire Act, but here it fell flat. The entreaties to Loge were hopelessly rushed. The evocation of the Magic Fire was far from magical: instead of aurally glistening, it could have done with a liberal application of Duraglit. Wotan’s final words said it all: there was no authority at all to the statement that ‘Whosoever fears/the blade of my spear/may he never pass through the fire’.

As if to confirm impressions, the encore was the Ride of the Valkyries played at 45 rpm, as if the Valkyries had ingested liberal amounts of speed. A disappointing end to a concert which contained so much to treasure.

Colin Clarke




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