Review: The Mariinsky Orchestra With Its Massive Sound Is A ‘Marvel’ At Carnegie Hall
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, November 17, 2017
At least three things emerge from the Mariinsky Orchestra’s back-to-back concerts at Carnegie Hall this week. First, the Mariinsky is a world treasure. Second, Sergei Prokofiev is arguably the finest writer of music for orchestra since Hector Berlioz. Third, Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony is one of the purest and most profound human testaments of the twentieth century.
Let’s consider those statements in ascending order of rashness.
The Mariinsky traces its history back to 1803, when it coalesced out of the imperial opera company established in St. Petersburg some twenty years earlier. By 1867, when Berlioz made his final tour of Russia, it was a crack outfit in its own right: “What an orchestra!” he marvelled, “What ensemble! What precision! I wonder if Beethoven ever heard anything like it.” With such a “superb” instrument to play on, he wrote, “I can do as I like.” It had proven “necessary to leave Paris to rediscover my life,” he told a friend, in a land where “people love the beautiful and live for literature and music.” After one ovation, César Cui noted in his review, Berlioz “came out and with a charming wave of the hand indicated that it was the orchestra, not he, that deserved the applause.”
Nothing much has changed since then. The sound is massive, sometimes overwhelming in its impact, but never rough or shrill. Balances are impeccable, both within and between sections. Each instrumental choir speaks with a single voice. The winds are unusually pungent and forthright, and the strings match them with a kind of cushioned brilliance, but the soft playing is almost miraculous, so heartbreakingly delicate sometimes that the listener has to remember to breathe. Every member of the orchestra seems completely committed in every moment: you find yourself agreeing with Berlioz, that they must “have in their breasts some fire which makes them forget the snow and the hoar-frost.” Their playing in the Prokofiev symphony was as nearly perfect as I ever expect to hear.
Prokofiev’s orchestral writing has long been a textbook-example of modernist brilliance and clarity, and there was a lot of that on display in his second piano concerto, in which Denis Matsuev’s phenomenal solo work was matched tit for tat by the orchestra. But it was the symphony that staggered the imagination. This is one of the orphans of Prokofiev’s unhappy postwar years, when he failed to cast an acceptable veil over “wounds that cannot be healed”—loved ones perished, health gone. “This must not be forgotten,” he wrote. The symphony is what loss and dislocation sound like, rendered with unblinking sobriety and shattering force, through writing that gives each voice and gesture individual life, within a formal structure that is all the more unsettling for being perfectly balanced. It is at once a monument and a warning. No wonder Stalin’s censors had to shut it down.
The orchestral texture is a marvel, perfectly clear in every detail, even at its most powerful, and full of astounding effects—a stereoscopic playing-off of a solo viola against a solo horn and then against its own section in the first movement, and a brass chorale balancing itself with awesome restraint against quiet harp and celeste in the Largo, just to give two examples among many—each of which seems natural, inevitable, and right. Next to this, Stravinsky’s Firebird sounded shallow, and Strauss’s Don Juan seemed muddy and fat.
Each of the two programs featured a world-beating pianist: Matsuev, as mentioned, on Tuesday, and Daniil Trifonov, in the local premiere of his own concerto, the following night. Matsuev and Trifonov are often contrasted—might versus matter, you might say—but at these concerts, it was the other way around. Matsuev had power to burn, even in a notorious knuckle-buster that Prokofiev himself had trouble playing, but the most remarkable thing about him was his stillness: he sat calmly and rarely moved above the elbows, and his most titanic exertions, stunning as they were, kept some kind of lyrical feel. His first encore, a Rachmaninoff étude requiring constant hand-crossing and an enormous dynamic range, was poetry itself. Trifonov’s concerto is a frank virtuoso showpiece in the old tradition, and Trifonov the pianist did not disappoint. Trifonov the composer is another matter: there were lots of attractive, promising ideas, but they never quite cohered in themselves or led to much in the way of interplay or development. Still, the piece held the interest, apart from a finale that spent a little too much time building up its wow-factor, and we’re not exactly overwhelmed with viable mainstream piano concertos these days, so more power to it.
Gergiev’s leadership was just what you might expect: brilliant, full of fire and feeling, but carefully thought out and never forced. Even if it wasn’t entirely clear what all these pieces were doing together, you always saw where Gergiev was going with them individually.
And again, that Prokofiev Sixth was a lifetime-event. Coming in the same week as a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, it was almost more than flesh could bear.
The Mariinsky Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on November 14 and 15, 2017. Valery Gergiev, Music Director and Conductor; Denis Matsuev, piano (November 14); Daniil Trifonov, piano (November 15).
Program on November 14:
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 9
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2
SCRIABIN Symphony No. 3, “The Divine Poem”
RACHMANINOFF Étude-tableau in A Minor, Op. 39, No. 2
PROKOFIEV Precipitato from Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
VERDI Overture to La forza del destino
Program on November 15:
STRAUSS Don Juan, Op. 20
TRIFONOV Piano Concerto in E-flat Minor (New York Premiere)
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 6 in E-flat Minor, Op. 111
PROKOFIEV Allegro precipitato from Sarcasms, Op. 17, No. 3
STRAVINSKY The Firebird: Berceuse and Finale
Cover: Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra with pianist Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.