For being one of the world's most sought-after conductors whose budding career moreover got a serious boost in the Netherlands back in the late 1980s with among others televised concerts, Valery Gergiev hasn't been seen much at the helm of the country's most illustrious ensemble, Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He got firm ground in Rotterdam, crowned by an annual "Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival", but Amsterdam has reportedly always been a love/hate affair. The short tour this March with a program of 20th-century music and concerts in Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels reunited the Russian maestro with the Concertgebouw Orchestra after a break of more than 15 years.
Valery Gergiev has been championing the music of Henri Dutilleux for some time and even honored the nonagenarian French composer with a special homage in the 2008 edition of his annual "Stars of the White Nights" festival hosted by the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. To open the concert in Brussels he selected Dutilleux's Métaboles, a composition commissioned by the Cleveland Musical Arts Association back in 1959 and premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in early 1965. A performance of this intriguing score, with its reliance on razor-sharp placement and precise instrumental color, can only be good news with an orchestra like the Concertgebouw, although Gergiev characteristically outsized the dynamic contrasts and sculpted the metamorphosing process with a rather hard chisel. The instrumental solos were nonetheless impressively rendered and the strings shone with all their magic.
More good news came with the appearance of the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos as soloist in Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto. He arrived in front of the orchestra as an old friend, giving both violin leaders a hug instead of shaking hands and he acted throughout as if he were a member of the ensemble. Kavakos' magnificent violin blossomed out of the orchestral tapestry with a blend of self-effacement and candor not often encountered with soloists on this level. The solo passages were handled with supreme assurance and I found the lack of showiness in his playing totally refreshing. It was in the lyrical moments, clearly looking towards the Mediterranean shores, that Kavakos was at his most beguilingly poetic. His nuances in dynamics and color were breathtaking and his command of pianissimi quite out of this world. Tempi were generally slow and unfortunately not without an occasional drop of tension although Gergiev secured a ravishingly detailed yet transparent sound from the orchestra, prepared rock-solid buildups but took care not to overpower Kavakos. An unforgettable passage came at the climax in the "Adagio di molto", with the solo violin singing with the ever-growing orchestral mass, before vanishing with the most intensely beautiful diminuendo.
Gergiev returned after the interval with a shattering, grim-visaged account of Prokofieff's Fifth. Things tend to dramatize and darken quickly in this wartime composition and Gergiev, who has always confessed a particular affinity with Prokofieff, left no opportunity wasted to highlight that aspect. Aided by a tremendous Concertgebouw Orchestra on peak form (and not at all daunted by Gergiev's unreadable fluttering hands), he pushed the movements to all-consuming climaxes, whether in the polyphonic clash of the first-movement "Andante", the bitingly motoric drive of the "Allegro marcato", or the devastating lyricism of the "Adagio". Even the festive run of the last movement was tinged with a sense of dark melancholy. The reading wasn't without some of the common Gergiev tics, as his tendency to jump transitions, or slow down and thicken certain passages, only to whip up the next to rather dubious effect. The staccato brass passage in the 2nd movement was held back to a sluggish pace although Prokofieff clearly wanted l'istesso tempo. Yet the overall effect of Gergiev's vision was no less overpowering.
The rich and extremely flexible sonority of the Concertgebouw Orchestra was a constant delight, as was indeed the sheer quality of the playing. There isn't weak link in this orchestra and ensemble was as good as it can get live. The characterful woodwinds produced a riot of color in the 2nd and last movements, the brass did a fabulous job even when hard-pressed and the strings had a lushness and depth to envy any orchestra.
All in all a highly successful reunion of two giants of the classical music scene, and one that hopefully won't need another 15 years to be heard again.
Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman