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Mariinsky: You Really Had to Be There

Concert II

October 15, 2011

Cal Performances

Valery Gergiev leads the Mariinsky on the U.S. tourThere was only one thing to regret about the Mariinsky Orchestra’s spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in Berkeley on Saturday night — the empty seats in Zellerbach Hall. This was SRO, you-had-to-be-there stuff, Bay Area music lovers. Where were the rest of you?

Perhaps three Tchaikovsky symphony programs in one weekend seemed too much of a composer whom many concertgoers have filed away as a known quantity. But those present knew differently, or else discovered something new and unexpected, registering their response with a noisy, clamorous ovation. Music Director Valery Gergiev and his forces deserved every bit of it for their fully committed, deeply felt account of this repertory staple.

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As they did with the Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique, on Friday, the Russian visitors filled a very familiar work with a propulsive sense of urgency and expansiveness. From the ardent opening of the first movement to a thunderous, terrifying climax of the fourth, the E-Minor Fifth held the listeners in its grip.

Tchaikovsky’s “Fate” motif was serious business right from the beginning, when it arose fully formed and replete with distinctive character in the clarinets. But Gergiev didn’t exploit the figure for its ominous immediate effect. He made it part of a drama that unfolded throughout. The first movement was a struggle of opposing forces, Beethoven-like, with the deep, rich, string phrases striving to soothe the tempests that kept breaking forth. Gergiev, at several points, slowed the tempo to near stasis, as if to interpose a necessary calm before the next outburst.

From the ardent opening of the first movement to a thunderous, terrifying climax of the fourth, the E-Minor Fifth held the listeners in its grip.

It might be tempting, after all that, to send the second movement aloft on its lyrical wings. While the Mariinsky artists can certainly spin out a phrase to ravishing effect, they are always reaching farther and deeper into the music. The opening passage of the Andante cantabile rose up like a dark wave, from basses to cellos to violas. When the great horn solo arrived, it came as a muted, fragile voice longing to connect somehow. The cellos sang back with gorgeous, wrenching sighs. The pizzicatos landed as emphatic winces. Mystery and consolation took their turns. If the first movement summoned Beethoven to mind, the second had the scope and inner turmoil of Mahler.

The Allegro skittered by, airborne and softly voluptuous. As the Fate motif arrived once again, near the end, Gergiev drove straight on to the Finale. The movement seemed like a prolonged spasm, as much for the careering strings as for the deep-throated, full-alarm trombones. The sound was mighty yet transparent, ferocious yet poised. Gergiev’s somber, almost terse way of taking his bows seemed altogether fitting. It affirmed that the Mariinsky musicians had shone their penetrating and revealing light where it belonged, not on themselves but rather on Tchaikovsky.

Busywork, but With Flourishes

The evening opened with the composer’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, the “Little Russian.” “Little,” to my ears, is the operative word. Spilling over with Russian folk tunes, the piece came off as pretty thin and sudsy. Some pleasing passages occur along the way — a deft interleaving of themes in the second movement, the engagingly sprung rhythms of the third. But much of the thematic development seems like busywork, covered up by occasional flourishes.

Gergiev let his troops loose for a fleet, bright-hued account of the work. The strings played with a glassy shining tone. The timpani and woodwinds got into a playful little skirmish in the second movement. No attempt was made to disguise the histrionics and pomposity of the Finale, with all its false finishes and a gong thrown in for good measure near the end. Some of it was fun. Almost all of it was forgettable.

The Mariinsky reserved one last packet of fireworks for an encore, the jauntily driving Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. It was bright and festive. But the vapor trails that lingered were the ones etched by that astonishing launch of the Symphony No. 5.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.