Monday, 16 January 2012

Gergiev's Венский филармонический оркестр

Musikverein, 14/01/2012

Wiener Philharmoniker, Valery Gergiev, Daniil Trifonov

Prokofiev: Symphony no. 1 in D major, op. 25 'Classical'

Chaikovsky: Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23
Trifonov encores: Chopin, Grande valse brillante; Bach/arr. Rachmaninov, Gavotte from the Partita in E for violin
Rimsky-Korsakov: Suite from the opera 'The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya'
Rodion Shchedrin: Concerto for Orchestra no. 1 'Naughty Limericks'

The Musikverein was just a pit stop for the Wiener Philharmoniker this weekend; Valery Gergiev (who else?) had them schlep this all-Russian programme around Germany earlier in the week and immediately after Sunday morning’s concert the orchestra flew to Oman, where this evening they have been performing at the recently opened Royal Opera House in Muscat. I had no idea about Oman until today, when curiosity drove me to find out why my stats were showing so many searches from that country leading to this. Wikipedia informs us that Oman is ‘described as "one of the most advanced countries in the Persian Gulf region as far as women's rights are concerned"’ and that seems borne out by questions such as ‘why are there no women in the Vienna Philharmonic?’ (as one of my Omani Googlers phrased it). As what remains of the liberal-left consolidates the removal of restrictions to opportunity, institutions such as the Vienna Philharmonic will increasingly stand out for their apparent upholding of gender, racial and cultural divides, and now that the citizens of an Arab League state – without wishing to belittle Oman, quite the contrary – are putting the official cultural ambassador of a supposedly enlightened Western nation to shame, we see just how precarious the orchestra’s position, assuming it continues, will one day be, and if not imminently then perhaps sooner than they think.

And yet women or no women, this concert was a thoroughly good one bar some minor unpleasantness best dealt with first. My experience with the Philharmonic has shown that the drill of performing a programme on tour doesn’t necessarily rid the playing of Schlamperei, and this concert saw a few egregious instances – though better that than a performance infested with dozens of irritating and totally avoidable lazy slips. Irritating for being totally avoidable probably goes to the crux of the matter here; being resident in Vienna and a Philharmonic regular, I appreciate why Mahler got so exasperated. Anyway, one of the horns played the mother of all split notes in the first bar of the Chaikovsky, on the second note (so on the beat and very noticeable). Heads were shaken and one man muttered ‘typisch!’, which shows that there are at least some amateur hour episodes even the Viennese aren’t prepared to indulge. One note should not be blown out of proportion, particularly given the exposed and exceptionally loud start, but what the Philharmonic would call ‘lesser’ orchestras are professional enough not to allow this to happen with such alarming regularity and indeed the Phil’s brass have a recent history of extreme carelessness, prompting the cutting remark ‘can’t their horns just learn how to play?’ from a friend a few months ago. And right at the beginning, undermining the performance before it has even started; so incredibly dispiriting, as accidental as the slip may be. Exactly the same thing occurred in the first chord of the Thielemann Götterdämmerung in November – yes, they did it to Götterdämmerung, is nothing heilig? – which was among the many depressing reasons I chose not to write about it.

Back to the Chaikovsky concerto, and happier things to report: there were a couple more horn slips (not quite as bad), but the players redeemed themselves somewhat in the slow movement, with some of that magnificently rich liquid ambrosia sound they are capable of producing. There was barely a bump in the signature lushness of the strings too; it’s been a while since I last heard their playing sound so seamless and homogenous. But musically there was more going on than upholstery you could sink into – Gergiev’s incessant caressing of whatever furry animal is in his imagination led to a wealth of sharply observed details and phrasing carefully directed towards a satisfying broader formal consolidation. It can be a risky strategy to draw attention to how unusually the exposition of this first movement is structured  better to leave manifestly classically conceived sleeping dogs lie – and an interesting open-endedness arose towards the end, sympathetic in many ways to what soloist Daniil Trifonov was trying to achieve, and, hitting an elusive Viennese trifecta, carried along with remarkable sensitivity and unity of thought by the Philharmonic. Having taken on board Charles Rosen’s debunking I tend to keep a wide berth of international competitions, but the ITC is a special case and there can be little doubt that Trifonov, should he ever get the chance to broaden his repertoire amidst the snowstorm of engagements the competition has bestowed, will be a formidable pianistic presence for many years to come. Touch and phrasing show a wisdom beyond his years, and struck me as something like the splicing of Gilels and Richter – ambitious by any reckoning, though Trifonov pulled off the improbable without disappointing, or making many compromises. Over time he may well offer a more characterful performance of this concerto and take a few more risks, but for that rare balance of flair and sensitivity I think that among the current crop of Russian pianists he beats even the woefully underrated Boris Berezovsky. Trifonov was a little nervous around the orchestra, and though nothing happened he did appear unsure of his way at a few points (this occurred to me more later, when he added a few beats – well recovered on each occasion – to his Bach/Rachmaninov encore). But I imagine that when making a concerto debut there aren’t many orchestras more daunting than the Philharmonic.

The Chaik was preceded by Prokofiev’s Classical symphony, played precisely and with slightly more lightness than is typically the case. The sound gradually acquired greater brilliance at moments when that was effective and while there was a gaping disparity in tempo between the big pile-up of A major that closes the exposition and what came before, from a theorist’s perspective I liked how Gergiev subverted the idea of essential expositional closure that this movement all too unimaginatively typifies. But first movement tempi in general did seem rather too carefully measured and close even to torpor. By contrast the third movement zipped along nicely, with the strings and winds responding well to Gergiev’s cues (according to Wilhelm Sinkovicz he is a conductor they don’t get on with, but I could hear no evidence of it).  

The Rimsky-Korsakov Kitezh suite was simply beautiful, the sound carefully weighed in every moment and full of interesting colours. Rapidly darting, gauzy textures in the strings gently cushioned some exquisite solos in the winds in the first and final movements, and while some wind intonation problems intruded in the second movement, the strings and brass forged on to the end, intensifying the drama and then scaling back with poise. My knowledge of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic output is pretty poor – I’m very bad at listening to what Richard Taruskin says I should – and this performance reminded me that I need to explore further.

The Shchedrin – a short piece in the vein of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites – didn’t make much of an impression despite the Philharmonic treating it in the right spirit. It was only a way for Gergiev to programme something this subscription audience doesn’t usually permit in the second half (an encore), but ending with the Rimsky-Korsakov would have been wiser.

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