Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – fragments
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Ivan Bessonov, piano
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Antwerp, Queen Elisabeth Hall, 17 January 2018
The concept of a concert devoted to a single composer may not be that rare after all, as was demonstrated by this performance of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev in Antwerp. The Russians brought a full, and as it turned out, very long evening of Tchaikovsky music in the splendidly refurbished Elisabeth Center in downtown Antwerp. A copious selection from The Nutcracker, the First Piano Concerto introducing whiz kid Ivan Bessonov, and the Fourth Symphony formed a program that ran well over three hours. Any lover of Tchaikovsky’s or Russian music will naturally welcome such a generous evening, yet as to why it ran so long was bound to raise a few eyebrows.
This concert, which I could attend thanks to the generosity of the organizing company Cofena, resembled to some extent Valery Gergiev’s recent Tchaikovsky CD on the Mariinsky label, coupling The Nutcracker with the Fourth Symphony. It had much the same qualities and flaws as on the recording. Overall these were analytical rather than emotional performances. The sonority of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra was admirable throughout. As an ensemble they are hard to beat. Even with their grueling performance schedule, they still do better than most. The characteristic emphasis on darker tones, punctuated by the lower strings and brass, works extremely well for this late-Tchaikovsky ballet and the symphony. Gergiev opens up the sound with meticulous precision and he lets you hear details you may never have noticed before. Yet this now comes at a heavy price. Many of his tempi have become slow to the point of inertia and some of his pacing impossibly contrived.
The concert started late, but that’s not unusual with maestro Gergiev, and it opened not with the scheduled Overture of The Nutcracker but immediately with the Departure of the guests. His handpicked selection largely emulated Evgeny Mravinsky’s famous live recording from Leningrad, although unfortunately that is as far as the comparison went. For this being the most exciting section of the ballet, including dramatic passages like the Battle with the mice, the Pine forest in Winter and the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Gergiev’s traversal turned out to be a pretty uneventful affair. There was orchestral detail to delight within every bar, and one would be hard-pressed to find an ensemble that knows this music better than the Mariinsky, but where was the life, the imagination, the frisson that sets these pages apart? For a conductor who has given us one of the most electrifying recordings of The Nutcracker on disc (in 1998), Gergiev appears to have developed a bizarre attitude towards the work. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t there yet this evening. The climaxes sounded flat and underwhelming and while the orchestral balance favored the – otherwise superb – lower brass, I could hardly hear the timpani from my seat at the back of the parterre. By the time they tackled an uneventful Waltz of the Flowers and a dangerously dragging Andante maestoso it seemed everybody had given up. Some 20 years ago I heard Gergiev and the Mariinsky in a complete Nutcracker concert. They blew off the roof with their full-blooded reading, displaying magic and drama in every bar. Yet hearing this now, this seems like a very long time ago indeed.
The best part of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of 15-year old Ivan Bessonov in Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. Born in St. Petersburg in a family of musicians, Bessonov has been playing the piano since he was six. He garnered the first prize in several youth competitions, among others the International Frédéric Chopin Youth Competition (2015) and the International Anton Rubinstein Competition The Piano Miniature in Russian Music (2016), both in St. Petersburg, as well as the international Grand Piano Competition for young pianists in Moscow. Long and lanky, with a mop of hair, he resembles a 1970’s rock star. His performance of the Concerto was by all means quite astonishing – for any age: keyboard touch and color were impressive, his technique rock-solid. But above all he appeared fearless, undisturbed by a few slips in the beginning moments. His musicality seems pretty straightforward, for now devoid of too many distracting mannerisms and tics. There is no doubt this man is going to go places. The clarity of his articulation and the directness of his delivery were completely matched by Gergiev who appeared in a much better doing here than the rest of the evening and secured a thrilling performance, deservedly greeted with a standing ovation.
Every time I hear Gergiev conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, I am less convinced by his approach. The mannerisms seem to increase by the season, as does the running-time. In the concerts from 2011 the Fourth was already by far the least persuasive of the Tchaikovsky symphonies cycle and Gergiev’s recent CD recording only confirmed the impression of artificiality and incoherence. He clearly has something special in mind with this work, but what exactly is anybody’s guess. Gergiev’s unwarranted lingering in the first and second movements produced far too many drops of tension. In effect, by now the symphony has fallen into a succession of episodes, some undeniably beautiful (as the opening of the slow movement, thanks to the magnificent Mariinsky woodwinds), others merely bland (as the return of the fate motif in the first movement, or the endless conclusion of the Andantino, due to Gergiev’s obsessive scrutiny of every orchestral detail), but eventually inconsequential. Even the buoyant Scherzo failed to take flight. The symphony is too drawn out, takes forever to end, and fails to make any impact as a whole. One could argue that Gergiev overplays the symphony’s dark beauty, but in the process he has totally smothered its passion and excitement.
The Lullaby and the grandiose finale of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird which allowed the orchestra to open its big guns one more time, was a very generous encore for an already long evening. Of the dozens of concerts and operas conducted by Valery Gergiev I attended in the last 25 years or so, this has to be one of the most dispiriting. Works that once sounded great in his hands now fizzled out or morphed into cluttered, unconvincing personal statements. Yet, not all was lost, as this concert allowed us to get acquainted with a rare new talent, Ivan Bessonov, from whom we will surely hear again in a not too distant future.
Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman