Mariinsky, Minus the Chemistry

Steven Winn on March 23, 2010
On a clear spring night that tempted concertgoers to linger outside Davies Symphony Hall until the last moment on Monday, the musical weather that followed inside was prevailingly murky.

The second of two San Francisco programs by St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra looked promising, with Shostakovich’s impassioned and ironic last symphony and Rachmaninov’s surging Piano Concerto No. 3 on the bill. The crowd, which included a healthy complement of Russian speakers, made a lot of enthusiastic noise, especially after Denis Matsuev’s bombastic turn as the piano soloist. But it was hard not to sense something dutiful, even preordained about the response.

Denis Matsuev
The musicians had their moments, especially in some of the exposed passages of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. The Rachmaninov concerto, with its elegant lyrical flights and concussive piano solos, did deliver a share of lush drama and showmanship. But Conductor Valery Gergiev never found the cohesion, momentum, or musical shape to make either of the evening’s big pieces leave more than fleeting, disjointed impressions. 

The program opened with a patch of musical scene painting from Berlioz’ Les Troyens – the Royal Hunt and Storm. Even as the brasses rumbled up some thunderclouds early on, they sounded oddly indifferent to the task, the accents and dynamics undercharged. The string textures turned patchy here and there, with blurred attacks. The calm after the storm, with Dido and Aeneas safe inside a cave, was more affecting.

Whatever mood may have been conjured by this brief bit of Berlioz, it was promptly dispelled during the long process of getting a piano in place at Davies. (Just wondering: Any way to put the stage elevator on a higher speed?)

The Rachmaninov No. 3 opens with commanding simplicity. As the Mariinsky strings laid down a seductively murmuring ground, Matsuev voiced the opening theme with stately tenderness. Hopes rose. The listener settled in to be carried off. But things soon swooned out of control. The strings swamped the soloist, who fought back with a clattering arsenal of ham-fisted dynamics and stretches of curiously dry, almost dismissive phrasing. The woodwinds produced some acerbic, downright ugly sounds in the opening movement.

Given that orchestra and soloist were going their own ways, the best path to enjoyment was to submit to the keyboard pyrotechnics. Viewed as a kind of sustained fireworks display, Matsuev’s performance had its pleasures. His trills came with a speed-of-light sparkle and shimmer. His cross-handed technique pinwheeled out brightly crackling chords. The long cadenzas, done in full heroic style, boomed away mightily. After the smoke had cleared, Matsuev returned for a counterintuitive encore — Anatoly Liadov’s Musical Snuff Box, done with tinkling, wispy charm.

With its assortment of quotations and allusions — to Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Wagner’s Die Walküre, and his own Symphony No. 11 and Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) — Shostakovich’s final symphony borders on pastiche. But as the Mariinsky made clear in fits and starts, it’s also a moving, richly personal work — a poignant, at times rueful meditation on music’s simultaneous power and evanescence. After a droll conversation for woodwinds and percussion, somewhat under-animated in this performance, the strings found the balance of capering and elegiac regret in the opening movement, with the brasses turning suitably caustic later on. There was a touchingly mournful cello solo in the Adagio, leading to a firm brass choir. But the tension and nerve seemed to dissipate, and the adjacent Scherzo lacked pungency. The final movement featured some intermittently handsome playing, marred by a French horn muff. The adroit percussion section got the eloquent last words. Then came another featherweight Liadov encore — Baba Yaga.

Conducting on the stage floor without a baton, Gergiev may have been aiming for an intimate, democratic connection with his orchestra. But little of that came across. The Mariinsky often seemed remote and disengaged at Davies. Tours can be long and grinding. Perhaps what the audience heard above all was a collective sigh of travel fatigue.