VPO under Gergiev in an all-Prokofiev programme

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Tuesday October 9 2018

Conductor: Valery Gergiev. Pianist: Denis Matsuev. Wiener Philharmoniker

Prokofiev
Prokofiev:
  • Romeo and Juliet:

    • Montagues and Capulets
    • Juliet as a Young Girl
    • Masks
    • Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet
  • Concerto pour piano n° 2 op. 16
  • Symphony n° 6 op. 111
This concert with the VPO under Gergiev had a markedly different temperature (or perhaps the word is temperament) from the one last week with the Philharmonia under Salonen. While both were virtuoso performances, naturally, Salonen’s was relatively cool and restrained and the Philharmonia’s sound overall was what I called “matter of fact”, while Gergiev’s thermometer went frequently up to red hot and occasionally - as in the angular (“constructivist”, the programme notes suggested) 6th symphony - white and, just as I said Salonen was not, paroxystic. Yet Gergiev can also do meltingly tender when the work calls for it. As I remarked later to an old lady living in the States, it’s amazing what one man can do with a toothpick or ballpoint pen in his right hand and the fluttering fingers of the left - provided he has the VPO at his command.

The Philharmoniker were (unlike last season, when I must admit I wondered why I’d mortgaged my grandmother along with her house to see them) at their most splendid, warmer, more rounded and blended-sounding than the Philharmonia, with that searing upper violin sound that’s so useful in Prokofiev. The programme was obviously a good showcase for their (I repeat myself as I can’t find a better word) virtuosity. I’d rather have had the composer’s Russian Overture than four bleeding morsels from a ballet, but it was no doubt a useful warm-up and the vivace of Juliet as a Young Girl was vivace indeed: feather-light and as fast as could be. Their playing was full of fascinating details and phenomena, of which I’ll note just one here: the bouncing bowing by the ‘celli at the start of the symphony’s final movement: how on earth did they keep it under such accurate, rhythmic control? Amazing all round.

Of the Philharmonia, I wrote that the principal horn deserved a knighthood. Here it would have been for the principal oboe, and the extraordinary harpist. In which case I suppose we’d need a dukedom for Denis Matsuev. This was the first time I ever saw someone playing the second concerto. Hearing it, of course you realise it’s difficult. That enormous, mad cadenza in the first movement! But seeing it, you wonder how anyone can play it at all. That Prokofiev was 22 when he composed it is just depressing. Matsuev bashed his way through it all with incredible accuracy and understanding, like a true champion; my neighbour, who didn’t know the work, was astonished; and the audience roared. Some of them even stood, which is a rare thing in Paris.

I’d never witnessed a live performance of the sixth either. It reminded me of the old LP I had of it. As a teenager, I bought what I could afford, usually in the sales at Woolworths. In this case a Soviet-produced disc that was, I remember well, heavier and less flexible than western ones, seemingly indestructible. I don’t remember which orchestra it involved, or under whom. I wonder if it’s still stowed away in the cupboard in the passage...

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