Carnegie Hall: December 15, 2001–Valerie Gergiev ought to be a master at Prokofiev’s music, as his numerous successful recordings of the composer’s operas and ballets attest. What a shock, then, to hear such indifferent playing and conducting when he, his Kirov Orchestra, and Alexander Toradze gave an all-Prokofiev program recently at Carnegie Hall. The opening number, the Scythian Suite, suffered from stodgy tempos at the opening, a serious lack of power from the brass in the second movement “Dance of the Pagan Monsters,” and an underwhelming final climax. But the worst was yet to come.
Gergiev and Toradze recorded a fine set of Prokofiev piano concertos a few years back, and the pianist specializes in this repertoire. Evidently familiarity breeds contempt, for this performance of the epic Second Piano Concerto rapidly turned into a circus act, a vulgar and cheap display of artistic insensitivity. Toradze operated throughout on two levels: whispy and uninflected, and louder than hell. At the climax of the first movement’s awesome cadenza, he rose off the piano bench as if to extract the maximum sound from his instrument, but visual impression are deceptive. He’d already climaxed pages earlier, and the pounding from a standing position (not to mention a sprinkling or two of missed notes) only emphasized his thinness of tone and lack of projection. In the second movement poor balances between piano and orchestra blurred much of the solo part, and the emphasis on speed at all costs spared Toradze the need to articulate cleanly and clearly the torrent of notes. And so it went, culminating in a benumbed, lyrically dead account of the finale’s hauntingly melodic central interlude. This disgusting display received a standing ovation, I am saddened to report.
Gergiev’s performance of the Fifth Symphony, which concluded the program, demonstrated that he simply hasn’t learned the work adequately. He made no distinction between the first movement’s opening theme and quicker second subject, ignored the ritard leading into the recapitulation, and rushed through what ought to be a grandly terrifying coda as if he were in danger of missing the flight to his next engagement. The same problems typified the scherzo, where the “meno mosso” tune that frames the central trio (such a wonderful example of Prokofiev’s special, gawky lyricism) went for nothing and, more to the point, failed to set up the quacking brasses’ accelerando return to the scherzo proper. Points such as this matter, because these tempo areas articulate the architecture of the movements in question. Failure to observe them imposes a uniform sameness on the music that the composer clearly never intended.
Adding to this problem was orchestral playing of extreme dynamic insensitivity (throughout the concert actually). In the slow movement, for example, a real piano or pianissimo was impossible to find, and delicate details of scoring (such as the gentle descending scale on the harp that ushers in the coda) remained obstinately inaudible. In the finale, a too swift tempo for the oft-returning principal theme meant that the music had no room to speed up for the manic final pages. Nor, in the final analysis, is the Kirov Orchestra a first rank ensemble. Wiry strings, fallible and often timid brass, and mushy sounding percussion failed to the deliver the power that this music so clearly requires. Ultimately though, the fault for these inadequacies must rest with Gergiev, whose tireless work to promote his opera company and orchestra will only command admiration as long as he invests the necessary time to obtain first class results. He certainly didn’t here.–David Hurwitz