Classical Music Review: Gergiev Comes to Town

By Caldwell Titcomb

Conductor Valery Gergiev’s podium demeanor is rather bizarre, but his musicianship is first-class.

Valery Gergiev is one of the busiest musicians in the world. Among other assignments the 55-year-old conductor has headed the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov Opera) for two decades, is principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and five years ago became the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). It was in the last capacity that he came to Boston for a Symphony Hall concert on March 25. The LSO, which was founded in 1904, had not played here for a quarter century, so its visit stirred uncommon interest.

Gergiev’s program consisted of two major works from the standard repertory: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat and Prokofieff’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. Nobody knows who bestowed the nickname “Emperor” on the concerto, but it is a handy moniker for a big and important piece.

Instead of having a long purely orchestral introduction, the concerto (written in 1809) has the piano jump right in with flashy arpeggios to kick off the longest movement Beethoven had ever written. The composer also wrote out the cadenzas in the outer movements rather than leave them for the soloist to provide.

Gergiev brought along as his soloist a 31-year-old Russian compatriot, Alexei Volodin, who started the piano at nine and in 2003 was the first-prize winner in the Geza Anda Competition. Since then he has concertized widely around the world. He gave us a secure “Emperor” that contained all the notes. But the first movement needed more grandeur. The slow movement at least showed that he could play trills evenly, and the rondo finale would have profited from more bounce. It was a respectable performance, but far from what we used to get from Rudolf Serkin and Leon Fleisher.

I had never seen Gergiev conduct before, and his podium demeanor is rather bizarre. He does not use a baton, nor does he begin a measure with the usual vertical downbeat. Most of his arm movements are horizontal, with fluttering hands that often suggest the flapping of fishtails. He gives an occasional nod of the head, and sometimes rolls forward on the balls of his feet. I should think the players would find it hard to follow him, particularly in modern works with shifting meters; but apparently the orchestras he conducts are by now used to his idiosyncrasies.

Most of the audience anticipation fell on the Prokofieff that followed intermission. For decades I vacillated over whether he was superior or inferior to his compatriot Shostakovich. I now concede that both were formidable composers, but give the palm to Prokofieff. Shostakovich wrote fiftteen symphonies, while Prokofieff wrote seven. The greatest in each set is the Fifth.

By the way, most people spell the composer’s name Prokofiev. But when writing his name in the Roman alphabet, he always spelled it with a double-F rather than a single V. And his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, steadfastly continues to follow his lead. That’s good enough for me, so Prokofieff it is.

As it happens, the Fifth Symphony has several unusual connections to Boston. During World War II, Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, arranged to have music paper sent to Russia for its composers. It was he who gave the first American performances of this work, and he was gratified to discover that the score was written on paper shipped from Boylston Street. Koussevitzky first led the work in November of 1945, and the live performance of Nov. 17 in Symphony Hall was recorded and later released on a CD. In February of 1946 the same forces made a formal recording, which has also been issued on CD. Both renditions are stunning. Finally, it should be pointed out that the autograph score of the work is housed in the Boston Public Library.

The reading that Gergiev and the LSO offered was slightly more spacious than Koussevitzky’s, running about five minutes longer. It was a marvelous experience all the way. The opening sonata-form movement is, unusually, marked Andante, and provides a good deal of suavity. The ensuing scherzo is prevailingly motoric. And the slow movement reaches a wonderfully intense climax. The finale looks back at the first movement’s opening theme, but proceeds to a frisky mood and a glorious ending. This was a first-class performance.

Gergiev has especially championed Russian composers, and has stated that Prokofieff is his favorite composer. He has recorded an enormous amount of Prokofieff’s operatic output and, with the LSO, all seven of his symphonies. On his current tour, he is programming all seven – and Bostonians were lucky to hear the Fifth in Symphony Hall once again. As an encore Gergiev led his charges in the March from Prokofieff’s opera “The Love of Three Oranges.”

Some footnotes. Unlike Continental orchestras, the LSO has a hefty female contingent – about 29 or 30, by my count. The four horns and tuba were all so polished that their gleaming was almost blinding; I have never seen such shining instruments. The players were not placed on risers, but all flat on the floor, with the first and second violins split on Gergiev’s left and right.

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