Prokofiev Cantatas

Théatre du Châtelet, Paris, Wednesday December 14 2005

Conductor: Valery Gergiev. Olga Borodina, Mezzo-Soprano. Ildar Abdrasakov, Bass. Lambert Wilson, Narrator. Chorus and orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg.

Alexander Nevsky; Ivan the Terrible

Talking of wild applause (as I did at the end of my review of Il viaggio a Reims the other day), rarely have I heard it so long and loud and larded with bravos after a concert as last night at the Châtelet.

I wish I’d kept a copy of Le Figaro’s review of Boris, which included an excellent account of the Mariinski orchestra; I could have translated it and pretended it was my own. It takes a far cleverer writer than I to describe an orchestra’s specific sound, and goodness knows the Mariinski’s is specific. All I can say is “er….” Darker, richer, fuller, riper, louder, as if their strings were twice as thick but twice as supple, their bows twice as long, their resin twice as sticky, their brass twice as brassy and their hearts twice as full; as if all the character our western orchestras have spent years eliminating had ended up in St Petersburg and found good owners there.

I’d noticed, even on CDs, that with the Mariinski chorus you can hear individual voices, not just a homogenous wall of sound. With the orchestra, it’s the same: every voice is audible: you can hear perfectly well what the saxophone, say, or the viola section, is up to, yet there’s none of the wishy-washy “transparency” the French, for example, so pride themselves on. Despite the vibrant, generous sound, Prokofiev’s harmonies are audible in all their gorgeous complexity and middle parts make themselves heard that you realise you’d never heard before…

Nor is there any consequent lack of ensemble – quite the opposite: this orchestra plays like a gleaming, well-oiled steam engine, with Gergiev managing, for example, the acceleration at the start of the battle on the ice without a hitch, ending at a cracking pace, in what might be called a controlled explosion. The rapid violin scales at the start of Ivan were like an icy, steely wind whipping through the trees, very fast but perfectly together. The brass and horns formed a wall of fiery oriental gorgeousness… Etc. etc. etc.

Enough of that – I said I wasn’t up to it.

Borodina needs no introduction. She looked as if both motherhood and apple pie were getting to her seriously, but sang as marvellously as ever, her voice combining, in a remarkabl way, Slav depth and rondeur with golden clarity. The bass didn’t have much to do, but looked less bored than Borodina while he waited for his less-than-15-minutes of fame, and did the little he had well enough to make me wish he had more. Lambert Wilson looked like every mother’s dream son-in-law, tall and handsome but clever (he wore specs), in a beautifully-cut dinner suit, and sounded a lot less odd reciting in French than I’d expected.

This concert confirmed what I suspected: the best kind of concert, for me, is one of Prokofiev and/or Shostakovich played by a Russian orchestra. There’s nothing else quite like it.

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