Gergiev, Kirov tour starts in Annapolis


Valery Gergiev may not yet be a household name among music lovers of our generation, but he soon will be if his record company has its way.

Walk into a record store these days and you'll see Gergiev's face glowering at you from the covers of his new Philips CD, "Rachmaninoff Second Symphony with the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg," that fills the shelves.

Why all the hype? Release of this "Rachy 2" has been timed to coincide with Gergiev's current American travels with the Kirov. The tour began Saturday evening with a program of Wagner, Prokofiev and Shostakovich in Alumni Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Pianist Alexander Toradze, the steel-fingered Russian Romantic who's never engendered an indifferent audience reaction in his life, served as soloist in the Fifth Piano Concerto of Prokofiev.

The Kirov Orchestra surely is one of Russia's finest. It is an aristocratic ensemble that traces its ancestry to the days of Peter The Great and numbers Berlioz and Tchaikovsky among its former conductors.

It remains a world-class outfit these days, especially in the string section, which plays with hot-blooded character beneath a beautiful exterior sheen.

There are superstars interspersed throughout the woodwinds, while the brasses are quite capable, but not great, especially when held to the high standards being set by our finest American orchestras.

And the Gergiev hype? Most of it is well-founded, though there are some quibbles to dispense along with the accolades.

The Eighth Symphony, Shostakovich's sprawling, bitter reaction to the horrors of World War II, is truly an awesome test for conductors and players.

Some of the great conductors aim for structural cohesion as they lead their assault on this monumental score, while others head straight for the emotional jugular and never let go.

Gergiev did neither. This was a slow, painstaking, at times even wayward exploration of Shostakovich's desolate emotional terrain.

Sections of the opening Adagio seemed to ooze together, materializing out of nowhere as Gergiev pushed, pulled and prodded those sad, lengthy phrases his way, sacrificing a sense of inexorability to achieve his deeply personal design.

The inner movements, also superbly played, conveyed all the bitterness one could want from this uncompromising score. Not a Shostakovich 8th you'd want to live with forever on your CD player, perhaps, but a valid, distinctive one nonetheless.

Less impressive was the Prokofiev Concerto, which contained little of the balletic interplay between piano and orchestra that distinguishes the finest versions. It sounded as if a deal had been struck; the piano would reveal the composer's caustic wit and the orchestra would play straight man.

Toradze, as ever, was all too happy to provide the yuks with his immense musical personality, but the accompaniment was flat, straight, and indifferently played: scrappy trumpet work here, a burbled bassoon solo there and -- horrors -- even a dropped double-bass bow in the fourth movement.

The dull, distended Prelude to "Parsifal" that began the program seemed more a bland exercise in taffy-pulling than a meaningful encounter with Wagner.

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