Capo di tutti capi. If you must have a gang invade your turf, let it be a gang of scintillating Russian conductors. The UK is in that enviable position – for some reason the Russians haven’t made real inroads in America – and Valery Gergiev in particular has London at his feet. All but the critics, that is. They are grumpy about Gergiev, and admittedly he is a grandstander. His first concert this summer was a program of almost amusing arrogance as he led the World Orchestra for Peace in the Mahler Fourth and Fifth symphonies. One knew in advance that it would be too much of a glorious thing. The mega-wattage of the orchestra, which draws its roster from the great orchestras of the world (even the back bench violins are first and second desk players at home) insured an evening of thrills. This ad hoc ensemble premiered in 1995, the brain child of Sir Georg Solti, who wanted it to symbolize harmony among all peoples. High-flown sentiments, but on the rare occasions when the World Orchestra assembles, with Gergiev now at the head, even the citizens of Berlin and Vienna have to take notice. This is orchestral playing of sizzling virtuosity.
I like chamber music played by starry virtuosos getting together for a lark. Such oversized egos can’t wait to push each other out of the limelight, and that same competitive edge marks the style of the Mahler we heard. Gergiev sees the Fourth Symphony as a darker work than almost anyone else (even a true believer like me must admit that his music-making rarely smiles), and he surges through the Fifth with unflagging intensity. Exhaustion set in just before the Adagietto, but even in a half-daze I noted the beautiful phrasing that Gergiev evokes with his fluttering fingertips: he’s the only conductor who massages an orchestra like Kobe beef. Actually, I’m treading water here. It’s very difficult to describe peerless performances; there’s no opening wedge for complaint or even a demurral. Everything that Bernstein used to bring to Mahler is now present in Gergiev’s volcanic, rapturous, endlessly fascinating readings; for someone who sprang from the Russian tradition, where Mahler was essentially a blank, he has seized the grail in his hands. But if he wants to keep his audiences from staggering blindly into the night, one Mahler symphony per program is enough.
Two weeks later, the second Prom with Gergiev brought in his own London Symphony, who also leave me flat-footed, because their playing was of a sublime refinement and power. I love what one of the musicians said about Gergiev in a BBC documentary: “For him, two notes in a row is a phrase.” As don of the Russian mafia in England, Gergiev didn’t have to work so assiduously to polish the LSO, which already boasts sterling soloists and a supple string section unsurpassed on the London scene. But somehow he took the unpromising Scriabin First Symphony, completed in 1900 when the composer was only 28, which can drift along like Delius lost in a maze, and make it sound like Debussy. The piece isn’t eccentric enough to sound like real Scriabin. The harmonies haven’t fully acquired his shape-shifting chromaticism. The program notes inform us that the work is full of Scriabin’s “languor and yearning,“ but the first five moments are pretty dozey. The whole effect depends on a gigantic orchestra playing as lushly as mink carpeting infused with rather simple melodies. Yet through the caramel haze one could hear the LSO’s exquisite solo woodwinds, and what other orchestra boasts three harpists, each with a personal style?
The sit-up moments come in the finale, when three hundred choristers rise to their feet to provide a resounding backdrop for a mezzo soprano and tenor as they rhapsodize about the glory of art. (The phrase “glory of art” is repeated fifty or sixty times; Scriabin’s text gets right to the point.) As one of his sovereign rights Gergiev has been introducing many staples of the Russian repertoire that the West barely knows. This was one. But the crowd wasn’t hanging from the rafters to hear Scriabin. They awaited the complete Firebird of Stravinsky, one of Gergiev’s specialties. In bygone times almost no one performed anything but the familiar suite. One can hear why. Bowing to the demands of the dance, the young Stravinsky padded the score a good deal, and lacking the gilded visuals of Mikhail Fokine’s fairy-tale choreography, the listener spends long minutes knitting or filling in a sudoku until one of the set pieces comes along. But Gergiev has a purpose.
Even when forward motion is nil, the Firebird remains an astonishing piece of orchestration, our first hint that Stravinsky would have a boundless imagination for new sounds. He creates a complete world unique to this ballet – you barely find him borrowing from it for Petrushka or the Rite of Spring – which shimmers like a rainbow on the verge of dissolving. Gergiev wants to show us every glittering sequin and spangle, evoking such marvels of pure sensuality that you forget how static the score can be. The audience lost its mind, but I wondered if it was worthwhile to examine a Faberge egg for an hour. Too much of a glorious thing, twice over. But as in the era of Bernstein, when he rocketed off the podium or stretched the finale of the Pathetique to the point where it almost snapped, criticism of Gergiev is silenced by one question. What would we do without him?