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The Essence of Tchaikovsky

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/10/2011 -  
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3 in D Major, Opus 29, "Polish" – Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36

Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Music Director and Conductor)

V. Gergiev (© Marco Borggreve/Mariinsky)

A friend who avoided this concert, claiming “Tchaikovsky allergy”, should have dropped into Carnegie Hall for two minutes during the second movement of the Fourth Symphony last night. That moment where the string consort plays on a repeated E flat chord before soberly continuing, had a sound, conducted by Valery Gergiev, that I could not have imagined.

Specifically, the Mariinsky Orchestra leaned on these notes with a literal physical gravity. No, not grave or gravitas but a serious, heavy auditory sensation, a weight transcending bows on string, a world-weary gravity that overcame the martial fanfares and out-of-the-closet emotions in the rest of the work.

But this is Gergiev’s modus operandi. Conducting without a baton, with a minimum of body movement, he can bring an orchestra to the height of passion (and oh, those Tchaikovsky finales are like candies of chocolate, marshmallow and red peppers) but equally, Mr. Gergiev can offer up single measures which have a transient but other-worldly aura.

As part of a month overwhelmingly dedicated to the composer, Gergiev led last night’s concert to Tchaikovsky’s least played symphony (the “Polish”), and this most popular Fourth. I use popular not as most frequently performed, but as a work which grabs audiences by the cajones and even in the lightest moments never lets go. Carnegie Hall was sold out, yes, but not for the composer so much as Mr. Gergiev, who, through upbringing and artistry, with more affinity than any living conductor.

His Mariinsky Orchestra–one of the world’s oldest, going back more than two centuries–seems to have tempered those growling Russian trumpets or hard strings, but they still offer the personality of a group driving hard to make their points.

Mr. Gergiev had no problem with the Fourth. After the fanfare, he took his time, but this was solely so he could begin those almost unbearable crescendos and the volatile climaxes. Everybody quotes Tchaikovsky’s wearying self-bathetic program notes, but I doubt if Mr. Gergiev paid much attention, so engaged was he in making the right sounds.

That aforementioned second movement, with a wonderful oboe solo and the string orchestra, was one of the great movements of any Tchaikovsky, But the third movement beginning with a hard string pizzicato, continued with winds and especially piccolo, tootling away with fiery speed against the little march in the strings.

Half a second later came the finale, a tapestry which Gergiev pursued not with great speed (one of his earmarks) but what could only be called grandeur.

The evening started with a slighter work, but this was an entirely different Gergiev. The Third Symphony, an homage to Polish dances, and light-hearted tunes, was written–and conducted–like a tease. Themes make their appearance, disappear, come back in another guise. Somber tunes reappear in dance form. And the second movement, under Gergiev, was the apotheosis of the Classical dance. Elegant, lyrical, reserved.

The genius of Gergiev’s Tchaikovsky, in fact, has nothing to do with the Karajan-Bernstein fire-and-tears Tchaikovsky. This was music measured, balletic, passionate when necessary, blatantly blaring when required, but always with an eloquent truly symphonic structure.

Harry Rolnick



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