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CBSO/MARINSKY THEATRE (Symphony Hall)

19-10-2009

CBSO

Two orchestras and two choruses working in tandem performing two large-scale works; so naturally The Stirrer sent two reviewers. Steve Beauchampé and Gary Whitehouse report on the CBSO/Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra collaboration at Symphony Hall.

One of the most anticipated events of the CBSO’s 2009/10 season, Birmingham welcomed acclaimed Ukrainian conductor Valerie Gergiev and his renowned Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Chorus for two concerts at Symphony Hall last week

Adding further to the excitement and spectacle, the two ensembles performed in tandem (with the musicians mixed in together), offering a brace of large-scale works which are rarely performed as stand alone pieces, never mind in the same programme.

Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe Des Morts (or Requiem) and Sergei Prokofiev’s Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, while sonically very different, share an affinity in that each was inspired by a seismic political revolution, arguably the pivotal revolutions of the 18th and 20th centuries respectively.

While many in Thursday’s near capacity audience may have been unfamiliar with the featured works, for CBSO regulars Gergiev himself is more like an old acquaintance.

Since first conducting the orchestra in the Town Hall back in 1989, he has returned regularly for further collaborations, including conducting the first opera to be played at Symphony Hall.

But it his work with the St. Petersburg-based Mariinsky Theatre which has won Gergiev international acclaim, along with a raft of awards, honours and plaudits.

Considered something of a hero in his adopted homeland of Russia for keeping the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) going after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has been connected with the company since 1977 and its’ Artistic Director for the last thirteen years, during which time he has introduced symphonic works into the repertoire of what for over 200 years had been essentially an opera company.

While tonight’s programme, and the artistic and linguistic demands presented by simultaneously conducting two orchestras and choruses (there’ll be 220 performers on stage throughout the concert) may seem daunting, Gergiev takes such challenges in his stride.

Epic scale work is his forte, a field in which he clearly thrives (he’s recently conducted both Daphnis and Chloe and The Damnation of Faust in London) - one imagines him warming up for a day’s work with a run through of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle!

Tonight’s performance opens with Prokofiev’s Cantata; in essence we’re embarking upon a story, as the work’s ten movements (played without a break) take us from the revolution’s conception via its enactment through to and beyond its immediate conclusion. Most scholars and critics believe the work to be satire, though its barbs are at times so veiled that the piece could almost be mistaken for fawning tribute.

Even so, Prokofiev, who had returned to Russia in 1936 after seventeen years abroad, was soon shorn of the political naivety of his youth as the increasingly unbalanced and paranoid Soviet leadership of Stalin and his cohorts began its show trials of artists and intellectuals.

Prokofiev swiftly withdrew the work prior to its first public performance in 1937, and it was not premiered until 1966, fifteen years after the composer’s death, and even then initially only in truncated form.

So, stage full, house lights dimmed and the Cantata crashes in C Major and cymbals first, the importance of the story that is about to unfold clear from the menace and foreboding embedded in Prokofiev’s score, so convincingly conveyed by Gergiev’s musical forces.

The man himself is a picture of restraint, carrying no baton, he transmits instructions via his hands, his fingers (indeed his fingertips), his facial expressions, even his breath.

Movements 1-5 come thick and fast, and we’re through them in less than eleven minutes. The texts (mainly taken from the pre-revolutionary speeches of Lenin, with recordings of the man himself being utilised) are sung in Russian, but via surtitles displayed above the choir, we can follow the propagandist intonations that underpinned the Bolshevik uprising.

As the tempo and temperature of the story increases, the music and singing become more intense. It’s stirring stuff, a choir of 220 belting it to the rafters, egging on, and egged on by, 160 consummate musicians.

By the Fourth Movement (A Tight Little Band) things are getting serious: “We freely decide to unite to combat our foes, and not be seduced by the stick in-the-muds.” and: “We shall take all bread and boots from the capitalists, we shall leave them crusts, we shall shoe them in basts.”

By the Fifth - essentially a fast-paced musical interlude - events are coming to a head, Gergiev seemingly marshalling his troops for the coming maelstrom, the pivotal ten minute long Sixth Movement (Revolution).

Here is the centrepiece, the most arresting part of the entire Cantata, a blaze of sounds, a blizzard of voices, more intonations from Lenin, a military band spied through the forest of bows brandished like staves by the string sections, rat-a-tat percussion, a fire truck, the whole fog of war and confusion of battle in a frenzy of music and song.

Where to look? What to listen to? Like the participants in a real uprising, it’s hard to grasp the full picture with so much activity taking place at one time. And Gergiev? Gergiev just rises slightly to the balls of his feet on the podium, flutters his fingers, and never once breaks sweat!

An accordion band signals victory, a siren sounds, and as the pandemonium subsides there’s a moment when some amongst the cellos and basses seem to visibly fall back in their chairs, exhausted by their labours. Then the percussion falls silent and the percussionists begin marching on the spot; the deed accomplished, the reigns of power taken.

Prokofiev’s not through yet though. The text of the Seventh Movement (Victory) implores us that: “The machine of oppression has been thrown over. We need a measured advance of the iron battalions of the proletariat.”

Satire it may be, but the performers must play it straight and the amalgam of English and Russian voices is particularly stirring, as it has been throughout. They sing of blood well shed, of victories to come in the cause of Communism.

It’s fervent, patriotic stuff, even if composed with seditious intent. As the final movement (The Constitution) reaches its rousing, intense climax, Gergiev stretches out his arms in celebration, soaking up the choral crescendo, and the rousing C Major chord with which Prokofiev tells us unequivocally: ‘It is over. It is done.’

(Steve Beauchampé)

CBSO

I have a confession. Do you mind if I make it?

As shocking as it is, before this evening’s performance, I had never heard Berlioz’s Requiem performed live or even for that matter, recorded.

In my defence however, I should like to say that I am a little familiar with Berlioz’s works. For my crimes, I do consider myself a seasoned veteran of the Symphonie Fantastique and I have a secret passion too, for Harold In Italy.

I would also like to think that I know something of what to expect from Berlioz – his brassy brilliance, swerving rhythms and delicacy of orchestration are for me, favourite trademarks.

With Berlioz, I always think of colour, vibrancy and a sense of the spectacular. But Berlioz and a requiem? Now, here was a poser for me. Berlioz was not a composer I ever imagined would make an easy bedfellow with a requiem.

Or should I say a “great” requiem? For Berlioz’s requiem is supposed to be up there with the heavyweights, you know. Look at any list of the biggies, no matter how arbitrarily selected, and good old Hector is there or thereabouts, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mozart, Verdi, and Faure.

Now, for the requiem purists of you out there, I do realize that this might jar a little. It did with me at first. Even after the most cursory of homework that I completed to whet my appetite for tonight’s big event, I discovered that Berlioz himself was not a deeply religious man and that his Requiem has sometimes been cited as one of the least religious masses for the dead ever written.

Why, he even freely shuffled the original Latin text to suit his dramatic intentions.

But I also knew that this work was going to be monumental, enormous. Originally composed for a great space – Paris’ cavernous St. Louis of the Invalides cathedral to be exact – the score was intended to accommodate a chorus of 800 (tonight there would be 380 voices) along with a super sized orchestra, that included a dozen timpani, quadraphonic brass, that would surround the audience in sound, and a marvelous tenor solo to be delivered from the highest balcony of the hall. Surely, this was all theatre and spectacle with Berlioz being out to wow not console?

So, as I took my seat for the second half of the evening’s entertainment, along with that little frisson of excitement and certain tingling of the spine that always goes with the experience of any first listen, I wondered just what to expect.

Maestro Gergiev, however, proved never to be in any doubts as to what any quibblers, such as I, would be getting. Here was a master at work. A great conductor, with a great work to deliver and a clear vision, to boot.

As he took to the stage with the almost understated authority, yet dignified confidence, of one who knew he was in full charge of proceedings, he held the choir, orchestra and audience in a silent thrall of wrapped anticipation before unleashing the violins and violas to open the Requiem with a dark and somber repeated rising scale that set the tone for the whole work.

Horns and oboes soon followed and before long the chorus. The music was agitated and anxious, the emotions were of agony and despair. The movement built, but never overpowered and with repeated undulations, the choir softly chanted “kyrie elesion” almost in dissonance until its end.

I was hooked. Do not be mistaken. This is a work of spiritual depth and power that far transcends our mere mortality to present us with a profound vision of the Day of Judgement. It is dark, mysterious and vast. Each of the ten movements that alternate from the crash of thunder to spellbound quiet, describes a different setting and portrays a different mood. In many ways, the feel to it is modernistic, almost avant-garde.

Its strangeness has both the power to shock and enthral. Old Hector knew a thing or two about the spiritual.

The Requiem is a mustering of large forces and of course, they do pose a number of problems for the conductor, but Gergiev was always in total control. Gone was the podium for this half of tonight’s performance and free to move about the stage, there was a measure, fluidity and grace to his conducting.

With arms outstretched he almost seemed to be hovering, bird like, at times, as with fingers extended and flicks of the wrist he balanced the tonal weight of the work with a constant line of sustained sensitivity and beauty.

There were many highlights to remember and admire, with the big movements proving to be as equally convincing as the gentler.

The Dies Irae – the Day of Wrath - was always going to be too good an opportunity for Berlioz to miss giving it the full works and he did so here in spectacularly dramatic style. When the groups of brass heralded in from different locations in the balconies, we were suddenly surrounded by sound that came from the very four corners of the earth.

And then as the timpani crashed and hit their chords with a rumble and the chorus and orchestra opened full throttle, the heavens really did seem to open above us. The sound might have been too much for a lesser auditorium, but the acoustics of the Symphony Hall never let it overpower.

In contrast, was the quieter but just as effective Sanctu - Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabath – with its marvelous tenor solo delivered by Sergei Semishkur from the rear of the hall, on the highest balcony. For nearly five minutes, Semishkur’s voice floated above us, accompanied by four solo violins and softly echoed by the chorus. Flawless and flowing, almost supernatural in its quality, its beauty was almost unbearable.

But for me though, the single most beautiful movement was the quiet Quaerens me with its gentle unaccompanied three-part counterpoint prayer that held the audience spellbound. Throughout, the chorus sang with a persuasive fervor and hushed intensity that was thrilling.

And then it was over. The Agnus dei ended with a chorus of amens and a soft slow beat of drums that almost seemed to mark the rhythm of the heart of mankind itself. Until it stopped.

In the well-deserved ovations and encores that followed, I turned to my neighbour in the audience and asked her what she though of the evening. “It was a treat,” she said.

Indeed, it was. How lucky we were to have such a giant of the classical music world in Gergiev, with such a renowned orchestra and chorus as the Mariinsky in cahoots with our own CBSO in our very backyard. The efforts of such collaboration are huge and not to be underestimated. Again, I soundly applaud all that went into making this such a highlight of the CBSO’s season.

So finally, if you were pushed then, and I do apologize for the impertinence of the question at this late stage, then whose Requiems would you put into your top four of heavyweights?

I am assuming that most of us would put Mozart straight in at number one without much hesitation. Second then? For me, it would have to be Verdi. How about you? Faure, do I hear you say? Certainly, he would be in my top three. But now think of number four. Who for you is number four? Uncertain? After tonight’s performance my mind at least, is firmly made up.

Gary Whitehouse

Please note; photographs were taken during rehearsals

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