From Russia with Love under Mariinsky super-conductor

Georgina Benison –

The most dedicated followers of Valery Gergiev, one of the most respected conductors in the world, arrived at The Royal Opera House Muscat an hour before the concert on Friday to listen to words of reflection from the great maestro.
A packed chamber heard him explain why the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the old Russian capital, is a pearl of musical culture, founded by Catherine The Great and later influenced by European composers and conductors. He explained his philosophy of music as a social and cultural bridge across political divides.
He praised His Majesty for his foresight in building the Opera House to provide a gateway to music – a language without borders – for future generations in Oman and beyond. Gergiev also advised everyone to visit the exhibition of costumes and props from the archives of the Mariinsky Theatre, on loan outside Russia for the first time. ‘From Russia with Love’ is free to visitors in all four foyers during opening hours, until November 10. Valery continued sharing anecdotes and signing until he was nearly late for his own performance in the auditorium.
Almost, but not quite, and dressed in conductor’s garb, the maestro with a mission was in front of the youthful, 85-strong orchestra to share a Stravinsky programme with the awaiting aficionados. It was led by the confident young violinist, Olga Volkova, elevated on her own personal platform.
Bearing in mind that the Prince Igor Opera set was in place on stage, an impressive pink and blue curtain from Mariinsky provided a perfect backdrop for the slightly cramped Russian layout (violins divided, cellos in the middle, six double-basses in a line behind and brass with six percussionists to the right).
The performance opened with Stravinsky’s 1908, ‘Feu d’Artifice’, an early, four-minute fanfare using a kind of aleatoric technique and sounding like a much later composition. Variously described as a ‘Scherzo Fantasy for Orchestra’, it was this gem, ‘burning and sparkling’, which influenced Diaghilev’s commission for the ‘Firebird’.
Conversely his 1940 ‘Symphony in C’ which followed was a late foray into an experimental neoclassical style in four movements. Stravinsky didn’t develop themes in a classical sense, but juxtaposed gorgeous sound worlds in contrasting sections. The Cor Anglais player, Alexander Rogozin, had some winding, chromatic melodies interrupted by Stravinsky’s signature irregular rhythmic chords.
The focal work of Part One was the 1919 revision of his ballet, ‘The Firebird Suite’, which was commissioned by Diaghilev for his ‘Ballets Russes’ with choreographer Michel Fokine (who provided the Polovtsian Dances in Prince Igor).
There was some superb playing from Horn player, A. Afanasiev here and throughout the programme, and from Oboe player, A.Levin, who earned especial applause at the end. The piece had every stamp of Stravinsky’s unmistakeable and compelling style; blocks of tonal colour, superb brass playing, foxy a-rhythmic punctuating chords from all sections, elements of bi-tonality and delicious added-chords spread across registers, from deep tubas and bassoons to very high piccolo shrieks.
The work reached a frenzied climax in the ‘Infernal Dance’ and Finale, where a ‘riot of rhythm’ was controlled and guided under the expertise, if unorthodox conducting style, of Maestro Gergiev.
Part Two presented a different, darker Russian language from Stravinsky’s contemporary musical rival, Sergei Prokovief. His Cantata for Orchestra and Chorus was a revision of the film score he had composed for Eisenstein’s 1938 film, ‘Alexander Nevsky’.
It depicts a thirteenth century battle between the Russian heroes of Pskov under Nevsky, and the German Order of Livonian Knights.
The fifth movement, ‘Battle on the Ice of Lake Chudskoe’, formed the climax of the work with its fierce opposition between orchestral sections, strong percussive explosions and trombone interpolations.
There was some fine playing from Evgeniy Borodavko in the tricky Tuba solos. It sounded for all the world like the Trans-Siberian Express, an enormous steam train forcing its way across the Russian steppe in winter, if it were not for the anachronism!
The sixth movement, ‘The Field of the Dead’ was a lament for fallen warriors, a solo sung beautifully in a rich, warm register filled with depth and pathos by the Georgian mezzosoprano, Anna Kiknadze – who sang Konchakovna in Mariinsky’s ‘Prince Igor’.
The sweeping harp accompaniment from Sofia Kiprskaya was appropriately subtle and sensitive.
There were clear references to Russian folk tunes in the third section, including some beautiful playing from the woodwinds, especially contra-bassoonist, A. Kiziliaev. The grand triumphal chords in the last movement suggested Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ refined by Tchaikovsky’s brilliant sense of orchestration.
The Mariinsky Chorus reflected the best of Russian Choral interpretation, with a particularly powerful bass section, trained under their director since 2000, Andrei Petrenko. They were, however, sometimes overpowered by the whole orchestra at its most dissonant!
But the star of the evening and lasting praise must go to one of the greatest conductors alive, Maestro Valery Gergiev, for his superb control and vision in drawing such excellence from his ensemble of young musicians.
It is a pity that the Royal Opera House, Muscat does not provide programme notes in its brochures to explain the musical context of performances such as this. We are privileged to experience the very best of conductors, singers, musicians and performers drawn from the world-stage, right here in Muscat, and a little explanation would go a long way to help non-professionals appreciate their brilliance to the full.