Monday, October 22, 2018

A Russian Take on Igor Stravinsky’s Music

Valery Gergiev and Denis Matsuev (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last month in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) presented two weeks of subscription concerts devoted entirely to the music of Igor Stravinsky. (One of those concerts happened to overlap with a performance of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du soldat” down the block in the Veterans Building, when San Francisco Performances launched its new season with its annual gala.) Last night Davies hosted yet another all-Stravinsky program, performed this time by the Mariinsky Orchestra led by Music Director Valery Gergiev as the latest event in the SFS Great Performers Series. The soloist for the evening was pianist Denis Matsuev.

While MTT tended to focus his attention on Stravinsky’s Russian period, presenting only one work from the Neoclassical period at each concert, Gergiev made the Neoclassical repertoire the core of his programming. He presented three pieces from this time of Stravinsky’s life framed on either side by earlier Russian period pieces sharing some family resemblances. Matsuev joined Gergiev at the core of that three-part set, playing the 1929 capriccio for piano and orchestra just before the intermission. This concerto (of sorts) was preceded by the 1945 three-movement symphony and followed (after the intermission) by the 1940 “Symphony in C” (with no indication of major or minor), following in the footsteps of George Gershwin (“Concerto in F”) and Maurice Ravel (“Concerto in G”). The program began with one of Stravinsky’s first pieces to be given public performance, his 1908 “Fireworks;” and it concluded with the 1919 suite based on the 1910 score for the ballet “The Firebird.”

The 1929 capriccio is one of the best reminders that Stravinsky could have a robust sense of humor. This is probably the closest that Stravinsky ever came to honoring the spirit of jazz, even if the flesh was not that identifiable as such. As the genre name suggests, the piece is lighthearted and often downright sassy. Matsuev took to the keyboard with a heavy hand, but it was heavy with an enthusiasm that never obscured the details of the devilish technical challenges on the surface. He was clearly having the time of his life romping his way through Stravinsky’s score, and Gergiev made sure that all of the instrumental interjections that reinforced the comic elements were delivered with the same high spirits.

In my past life as a dance critic, I came to know and love this capriccio as the music George Balanchine chose for his “Rubies” ballet. Balanchine used this piece to provide the comic relief in the Jewels trilogy, situating “Rubies” between the French serenity of “Emeralds” and the Imperial Russian grandeur of “Diamonds.” (“Rubies” was unabashedly American, almost suggesting the moves of a troupe of Broadway hoofers who had wandered into a ballet company by accident.) Last night was my first opportunity to experience a performance of the score on its own merits; and, while a few memories of Balanchine may have intruded, I was delighted with how well Matsuev and Gergiev served it up in a “pure” concert setting.

Gergiev did not seem quite as sure of himself when presenting the two symphonies. The 1940 piece tended to be on the more solid ground. This was the part of the program in which reflections on classicism were clearest (although, to be fair, Stravinsky’s departures from those classical roots were just as clear). Most importantly, Gergiev kept a firm hand on his large string section (far too large for any “classical” performance), always making sure that the interjections from winds and brass came through with crystal clarity.

In the 1945 symphony, on the other hand, it almost seemed as if Gergiev was so occupied with the eccentricities of the driving rhythms that he lost touch with any distinction between foreground and background. Mind you, there were enough wind, brass, and percussion players to hold their own throughout the aggressive rhetoric of this symphony. Nevertheless, there were too many instances in which it felt as if the strings were playing one piece while trying to drown out the rest of the ensemble intent on playing something else.

On the Russian side it was clear that Gergiev took real delight in serving up music from the launch of Stravinsky’s career as a composer. As the note for the program book by Aaron Grad observed, Sergei Diaghilev was in the audience when “Fireworks” was first performed. He invited Stravinsky to compose the score for his next ballet project, which happened to be “The Firebird;” and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history.

It should be no surprise, then, that those familiar with the “Firebird” score can find “prequel” moments in “Fireworks.” Instrumental motifs that seemed to depict those evanescent hand-held sparklers would soon find their way into the music that would later represent the Firebird trying to escape Prince Ivan’s grasp. Mind you, by choosing to conclude his program with the 1919 “Firebird” suite, Gergiev did not facilitate listeners making this connection, since the episode in question did not make its way into the suite’s score. Nevertheless, one could still appreciate ways in which “Fireworks” provided a foretaste of the spirit of the Firebird music that was  presented in the 1919 suite.

As is frequently the case with Great Performers visits, both soloist and conductor took encores. Matsuev’s was the more interesting, since it involved a piece composed by Jean Sibelius during the time of Stravinsky’s Russian period. He played an etude in A minor that was part of the Opus 76 collection of thirteen pieces for solo piano, all of which were composed between 1911 and 1919. Gergiev, on the other hand, reminded us all that the Mariinsky Theatre is an opera house. He concluded the evening with a rip-snoring account of the overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La forza del destino. My only thought was that Stravinsky turning in his grave might prove to be an untapped source of energy.

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