A Russian evening with Valery Gergiev and Denis Matsuev

22 Dec 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Valery Gergiev

Denis Matsuev

  • Rodion Shchedrin
    Symphonic Diptych (German première) (10 min.)

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in D minor, op. 30 (47 min.)

    Denis Matsuev Piano

  • Modest Mussorgsky
    Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel) (36 min.)

  • free

    Valery Gergiev in conversation with Wilfried Strehle (17 min.)

Russian music and Russian musicians were one of the main themes of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the autumn of 2010. The focus of attention in this concert was Valery Gergiev, one of the most well-known conductors from his home country. Gergiev came to fame especially due to his work with the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg which goes back to 1978. But Berliner Philharmoniker audiences have also known him since 1993.

Denis Matsuev who comes from Irkutsk, on the other hand, made his debut with the orchestra in this concert. He first made a name for himself in the music world when he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998. That he is not only passionate about classical music is demonstrated by the fact that he was the first musician ever to give a jazz concert at the Moscow conservatory. Just a few months before this guest appearance in Berlin, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, also with Valery Gergiev as conductor. The New York Times commented: “Denis Matsuev, the fast-rising young Russian pianist, ... wielding his athletic virtuosity and steely power, gave a chiselled, hard-driving yet transparent performance .... The ovation was enormous.”

All three works in this recording represent a fascinating combination of Russian and Western music. In his Symphonic Diptych, Rodion Shchedrin condensed an opera which he had written for the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel in 2002, and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto was written for the composer’s American debut in November 1909. The final work of the concert is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the orchestral version by Maurice Ravel. The elemental, even raw power of the original piano version is certainly lessened, but Ravel more than makes up for this through his use of colour and shading, which creates a multi-dimensional cosmos from the perhaps almost too unswerving persistence of the piano version.

In Search of the Russian Soul

Compositions by Shchedrin, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky-Ravel

The three composers represented in this concert are connected by more than just their Russian heritage. For each of them, the piano was the starting point and an indispensable expressive medium in their compositional process: Rodion Shchedrin is a “formally trained” pianist; Serge Rachmaninov was one of the outstanding piano virtuosos of the 20th century; Modest Mussorgsky, the most unconventional of the three, had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was six but remained essentially self-taught as a musician.

Rodion Shchedrin, born in 1932 in Moscow, is one of the best known and most distinctive Russian composers of the present day. In his wide-ranging output, he has succeeded in combining traditional and novel musical forms. Now 78, he has shown himself to be a “post-avant-gardist”, never allying himself with any school or following any trends. During the Soviet Communist period, he wrote provocative works while serving “politically” as secretary of the Russian Composers’ Union.

In 2002 Shchedrin composed The Enchanted Wanderer for three soloists, chorus and orchestra, basing this “opera for the concert hall” on the novella of the same name by Nikolai Leskov. It tells of the young Ivan Severyanovich Flyagin, who is pursued by the ghost of a monk he once tortured to death. After years of aimless wandering, Ivan enters the service of a prince. At his court, he falls in love with the beautiful gypsy Grusha, but she already loves the rich, impulsive prince, who has rejected her for another. Consumed by jealousy, the gypsy implores Ivan to kill the other woman, and, because he cannot bear to see Grusha’s suffering, he agrees. At the end, the dead woman’s ghost leads Ivan to repent in a monastery, where he becomes a monk.

In 2004, Shchedrin arranged a scene from the work for mezzo-soprano and piano; four years later he produced the Symphonic Diptych “Broken Song” for large orchestra utilising motifs from the opera and the important theme connected with Grusha. Playing for about ten minutes, the piece consists of four contrasting sections, the last roughly as long as the preceding three together. Typical of Shchedrin’s style are allusions to gypsy music, with rapid shifts between slow and fast music and a dancelike 2/4 metre, but also the sudden breaking off of individual sections and use of thematic fragments.

Serge Rachmaninov, the extraordinary piano virtuoso who earned a reputation as a successor to the legendary Franz Liszt, primarily regarded himself as a composer of piano music, songs, symphonic works and operas. After the October Revolution of 1917, he left his Russian homeland, eventually settling in the USA and achieving international fame as a concert artist. He produced a total of five works for piano and orchestra, four concertos and a rhapsody. Composed for his American debut, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor op. 30 has distinctly symphonic dimensions. Rachmaninov himself considered it too long, and so in the 1920s and early 30s he played a version with cuts. The nickname “Concerto for Elephants” that he gave his own work refers to the enormous technical demands of the piano part.

Laid out in the “classical” three movements, the concerto is marked by expansive lyricism and elegance, bold colours and contrasts, and a strong sense of atmosphere. The principal theme of the opening movement is presented by the piano before being taken up by the orchestra. This simple melody is later contrasted with a less flowing theme of sharper rhythmic profile. The development section brings increasing activity and considerable turbulence to an otherwise relatively placid movement. Partly elegiac, partly effusive, the Intermezzo leads without break to the highly animated Finale, which ends with the piano and orchestra in a dramatic dialogue.

At his early death, Modest Mussorgsky left behind a number of unfinished orchestral works. Most of them were completed for performance by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – not necessarily to the advantage of the composer’s original, with Mussorgsky’s unconventional style often falling by the wayside. But the story is different with Pictures at an Exhibition. Ever since Maurice Ravel made his orchestral version of it in 1922, the work has enjoyed unbroken popularity in the concert hall. Ravel’s scoring introduced the modernity of Mussorgsky’s music to a broad public while also awakening renewed interest in the original piano suite.

On 23 July 1873, Mussorgsky’s friend, the architect, sculptor and painter Viktor Hartmann, died in Moscow. One year after his death, a memorial exhibition of his works took place in St. Petersburg. Ten of his later pictures – most of them now lost – made an especially strong impression on Mussorgsky. As a musical epitaph for his friend, he wrote Pictures at an Exhibition, a cycle of piano pieces with an introduction and connecting interludes – five “promenades” of varying length and character, based on a modal-sounding theme whose free structure and rhythmic displacements suggest Russian liturgical chant. “In this piece,” wrote the eminent critic Vladimir Stasov, Mussorgsky depicts himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.”

The opening Promenade is followed by ten highly contrasted “Pictures”. Gnomus is a little gnome running awkwardly on crooked legs. Mussorgsky depicts him grotesquely with lurching phrases, broken melodies and abruptly shifting dynamics and accents. Il vecchio castello evokes the melancholy atmosphere of an old castle in which a troubadour sings his elegiac song. Tuileries is a brief portrait of squabbling children in the Parisian park. Bydło is an old Polish ox-cart lumbering on huge wheels, which we hear approaching, passing and receding into the distance. The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells was inspired by one of Hartmann’s designs for the ballet Trilby: cheeping, newly hatched chicks clumsily running about. The following picture, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, is a caricature of two Polish Jews: the rich, self-important Goldenberg strides about pompously while poor Schmuÿle hops hectically around him and begs. The Marketplace at Limoges is a bustling genre scene: bickering market women are screaming so violently at each other that only sheer noise remains at the end of the piece.

In the picture Catacombae Hartmann represents himself going through the catacombs of Paris with lantern in hand. The subtitle of the Largo section, Sepulcrum romanum evokes associations of Roman sepulchres. The following Andante, a dialogue of the composer “with the dead in a dead language” (Cum mortuis in lingua mortua), is Mussorgsky’s self-described encounter with the spirit of his deceased friend. The penultimate picture – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga) – is based on Hartmann’s drawing of a wooden clock carved in the form of the hut belonging to the notorious witch from Russian myth. She is depicted riding wildly through the air. Following without transition is the concluding Great Gate of Kiev, after Hartmann’s architectural sketch. The scene is monumental: ancient Orthodox chant is evoked as the majestic procession, with huge orchestral forces and heavily tolling bells, swells to a resplendent conclusion.

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Richard Evidon

Valery Gergiev was born in Moscow in 1953 and grew up in the Caucasus. After studying music in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, he won first prize in the All Union Conductors’ Competition in Moscow in 1975 at the very beginning of his career; one year later he won the Herbert von Karajan Conductors’ Competition at the Philharmonie in Berlin. Since 1988, he has been artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and has toured with its orchestra and its opera and ballet ensembles to more than 45 countries. Valery Gergiev is also principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, founder and artistic director of the St. Petersburg “Stars of the White Nights” festival and the Moscow Easter festival, conductor of the World Orchestra for Peace, founded by Sir Georg Solti, and artistic consultant to the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft Basel. In addition to all these, he is artistic director of the international festival in Mikkeli in Finnland, the Red Sea Festival in Eilat (Israel), and the Gergiev Festival in Rotterdam, all of which have him to thank for their establishment. The international award winning musician is a welcome guest of leading opera houses and concert venues all over the world, and has particularly close artistic partnerships with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival. He made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut at the beginning of June 1993 in a series of concerts of works by his fellow Russians Prokofiev and Shostakovich. For his most recent appearance at the end of October 2000, he conducted three concerts with works by Lyadov, Rachmaninov, Mosolov and Shostakovich.

Denis Matsuev was born to a family of musicians in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in 1975, and began playing the piano at the age of four. Since celebrating his international breakthrough as the winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998, he has been one of the most popular pianists of his generation. His guest appearances include with the Chicago and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Filarmonica della Scala and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. He maintains close artistic partnerships with Russian orchestras such as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra and the Russian National Orchestra. Denis Matsuev has worked with conductors such as Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, Semyon Bychkov, Paavo Järvi, Mikhail Pletnev and Vladimir Fedoseyev. With these concerts, he will be making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The pianist is also often to be heard as a soloist at many high-profile festivals. In 2008 he was named artistic director of the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation at the express wish of Rachmaninov’s grandson, Alexander. Denis Matsuev is artistic director of the festivals in Annecy (France) and in his hometown of Irkutsk (“Stars on Baikal”) as well as of the Crescendo series of concerts which take place in various leading music centres and whose aim is the promotion of young, highly gifted musicians from Russia.

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