On November 8, 2017, the indefatigable Music Director/Conductor Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky Orchestra and pianist Denis Matsuev in a dramatic 2 and ¾ hours long concert at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan that featured works by Russian and German composers, including a double encore of Wagner preludes. The concert and the aforementioned encores were dedicated to the memory of M. Lee Pearce, M.D., J.D.; Gergiev advised the audience that Pearce, who travelled with him and the Mariinsky during the Moscow Easter Festival, “loved Chicago”.
The program included:
– Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 16, 1945
St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra sounded great throughout the concert, and they played the lovely and compelling Symphony No. 9 with the assurance of long familiarity. The symphony is in 5 movements, with the last 3 played attacca.
The first movement is witty and sparkling, even jovial, moving into a fanfare with pronounced tympanic rhythm that opens the second movement. The Moderato is melancholy, restrained and controlled, leading into a saucy Presto. In the Largo, a sad bassoon solo is ushered in by the brass and finally, in the last movement, the bassoon evolves into rapid folk-dance music.
It’s a very different piece than the 7th and 8th symphonies preceding it, with their enormous drama, suffering and war imagery. Filled with joy, reminiscent of Haydn, relatively brief and accessible to all, it was conducted with fluidity and played with mastery.
– Sergei Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16, 1912-13; 1923
The original score of this complex piece was destroyed in a fire following the Russian Revolution. Prokofiev reconstructed and thoroughly revised it in 1923; it’s considered to be one of the most technically formidable piano concertos in the standard repertoire. Some critics claim this is a work of genius, others a monstrosity; certainly it’s a powerful and impressive piece.
The 4 movements are arranged in an unconventional way; there is no “slow” movement. While the first movement begins with a lyrical and delicate theme, it transforms into an almost overwhelming and technically ferocious cadenza for solo piano, the orchestra reentering near the end. The Scherzo that follows is very rapid, with a sense of perpetual motion required by the pianist, and the Orchestra adding bursts of brief and welcome color. The Intermezzo contains a repeating bass line overlaid by a fierce march. Finally, the piano seems to spar with the Orchestra in a discordant and unremitting series of harmonics.
Matsuev dominated the instrument with authority in the enormity of the first movement and continued the performance with a will, a fully developed artist taking on a daunting challenge. The Orchestra was focused, responsive and reflective. Gergiev, his fingers fluttering, and sans podium or baton, often stepped toward the musicians as though to encourage or draw forth even more sound and effort. The first movement, in particular, was a joint display of sonority; the finale brought an emotionally cohesive culmination.
– SOLO PIANO ENCORE BEFORE INTERMISSION:
– Sergei Rachmaninov Etude-Tableaux, Op. 39 No.2, 1916-17
Coming back to the piano after the storm of the Prokofiev, Matsuev’s fingers flew over this piece, also known as “The Sea and the Seagulls.” A powerful, moving and tragic work, it contains a contrasting central section building to a climax that falls away before the reprise of the opening. It evoked gentle, deep and profound grief. Filled with multiple musical textures, and requiring crossed hands as well as a characteristic Rachmaninov left-handed “Dies Irae” chant, it’s a panorama of virtuosic fingering.
– Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40, 1898
This is a lustrously lyrical piece that opens with an immediate vivacity and continues with a strongly erotic feeling, the spectacularly evocative and clear first (and solo) solo violin tender and serious. The performance was perfectly paced, the Mariinsky balanced, the whole detailed, warm and radiant, if a trifle saccharine.
-Richard Wagner Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin, 1848
Wagner’s Lohengrin was dedicated to Franz Liszt, who gave the premiere in Weimar in August 1850, with the composer necessarily absent in exile. This is a tale of medieval chivalry and betrayal, pitting spiritual purity against worldly evil; the title character is one of the Knights of the Holy Grail.
The 8-minute Prelude to the first of the three acts creates a vision of the Grail coming down to earth. The piece begins with “shimmering” strings, the flutes and oboes providing a wealth of color. As the theme develops, continues and is reiterated, the orchestration increases, swelling into a grand climax before falling poignantly away in a return of the violins.
The Prelude to Act 3, about 3 minutes in duration, is music of enormous excitement and expectation with powerful ringing brass notes, but using every section of the Mariinsky, ending the concert on a stirring and inspirational note.
For information and tickets to all the fine programs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to CSO website
All photos by Todd Rosenberg