March 17, 2016


Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2; Vocalise. Valer Sabadus, countertenor; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $16.99.

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3; Symphonic Dances. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $16.99.

Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 4, 6 and 7; Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5. Alexei Volodin and Sergei Babayan, piano; Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky. $25.99 (2 SACDs).

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5; Piano Concerto No. 3. Denis Matsuev, piano; Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky. $18.99 (SACD).

     The distinctive lushness of Russian music, coupled with an acerbity that it developed during the Soviet era, is particularly well exemplified by the works of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev – works that, although they are firmly in the international repertoire, still seem to elicit an extra degree of intensity and commitment from Russian conductors. Certainly Dmitrij Kitajenko shows outstanding comprehension of and involvement in Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, delivering performances of Nos. 2 and 3 that stand back from the frequent excesses imposed on them (admittedly with some justification) by other conductors and showcasing them all the more effectively as a result. Rachmaninoff himself, with his grand, sweeping themes and frequent use of the word rubato in tempo indications, invites swooning in performances – but Kitajenko shows how much better these works sound when handled with greater care. The passion, warmth and tenderness of Symphony No. 2 are everywhere apparent in a rendition that eschews speedy or overly draggy tempos: Kitajenko opts for moderate ones, occasionally just a touch on the slow side. By preserving the tension of the development section of the first movement, for example, Kitajenko prevents the movement as a whole from seeming over-long – the same sort of approach that serves the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 well when conductors are able to manage it there. A crisp scherzo, passionate slow movement and joyously triumphant finale make this an outstanding performance from start to finish: instead of sprawling, the symphony expands in a controlled way that, far from minimizing its thematic beauties, actually enhances them. In Symphony No. 3, the most difficult of Rachmaninoff’s three to bring off coherently, Kitajenko is equally good. Again, it is restraint and care that mark this performance, from the handling of the opening motif that is key to the whole work to the limits that Kitajenko places on the first movement’s cello theme even though Rachmaninoff specifically calls for rubato in playing it. The warmth and elegance with which the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln plays aid the interpretation immensely, as does the fine and understated sound on Oehms; and if the tempos are again on the moderate-to-slow side, this generally gives the work breadth and scope that are thoroughly convincing. Once in a while, the approach misfires a bit, as in the fast sections of the middle movement, which are too slow to deliver the near-skittishness at which Rachmaninoff seems here to be aiming. And in the very last bars of the finale, Kitajenko, like several other conductors, slows down for no apparent reason, so the symphony stutters to a halt instead of racing headlong to its conclusion. Yet even with these less-than-ideal elements, this is a compelling performance, one that Kitajenko clearly thought through carefully and one that shows Rachmaninoff here offering thematic unity and careful craftsmanship – two characteristics that he is often accused of lacking, but that Kitajenko brings forth to striking effect.

     The pairings with these symphonies also get finely considered treatment. With No. 2 comes the Vocalise, the last of the 14 songs from Rachmaninoff’s Op. 34, sung not by a soprano or tenor but by a countertenor. Valer Sabadus’ voice combines the range of a female singer with the solidity of a male, resulting in this music in a rather odd effect, although not an unpleasant one. Accompanying Symphony No. 3 is Rachmaninoff’s final work, Symphonic Dances, which is first-rate in two of its three sections. Taken quite slowly, the languorous central waltz is highly appealing, the richness of the orchestral sound resulting in a very atmospheric reading. And the power of the finale is considerable: a stronger assertion by the brass of the final iteration of the Dies irae would have been welcome, but Kitajenko’s decision to let the gong’s sound continue for fully 20 seconds at the very end is startlingly effective. What falls a bit short here is the first dance, which is overly staid and lacking in the sort of nerve-wracking intensity that it can elicit: it is not dull, but it is not nearly as intense as it can be. On balance, Kitajenko’s handling of both the symphonies and the other works is sonorous, committed and filled with revelatory touches, showing Kitajenko to be not only a skilled interpreter of Rachmaninoff but also a particularly thoughtful one.

     Valery Gergiev is a more uneven conductor, seemingly driven more by passion than intellect, producing performances that often glow with searing intensity but also have a tendency to veer off the interpretative tracks. In this he seems at times like Leonard Bernstein, another conductor whose readings could be revelatory but could also be maddeningly off-kilter. Gergiev’s way with Prokofiev will certainly not please everyone, but there is so much that works in his handling of the symphonies and piano concertos that it is more than worthwhile to put up with some of the more-raucous and less-well-considered elements. Two Mariinsky Orchestra recordings on the orchestra’s own label vividly display the pluses and minuses of Gergiev’s handling of this repertoire. The Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 5 feature pianists with very strong technical skills who nevertheless tend to take a back seat to Gergiev and the orchestra, which dominate rather than complement the solo instrument. Denis Matsuev’s handling of Concerto No. 3 will be the most divisive for listeners. There is technical brilliance aplenty here, abetted by a rather over-bright recording, but there is precious little subtlety on display, and the emphases are curious, sometimes seeming spot-on to near perfection but at other times coming across as little more than hammering the keys. Alexei Volodin deftly manages the left-hand Concerto No. 4, and Sergei Babayan uses a light, almost fleet touch in Concerto No. 5, with the result that both concertos sound witty, breezy and bright, and so involving that it is hard to see why they are played so much less frequently than No. 3. The overall interpretative similarity of the three concertos quite clearly results from Gergiev’s mastery of the works’ orchestral elements: the concertos sometimes seem more like works with piano obbligato than ones placing the soloist front and center. Much of the music invites this sort of handling, but whether it is in accord with a listener’s preferences will be very much a matter of individual taste.

     The symphonies give Gergiev plenty of scope for emphasizing and de-emphasizing structural and thematic elements as well as orchestration, and he takes full advantage of his opportunities. All four symphonies get very involving performances, even though individual elements of all of them are somewhat on the grating side. No. 5, coupled with Concerto No. 3, sounds rather driven and sometimes rough-edged in its first and third movements; on the other hand, Gergiev repeatedly brings forth intensely Romantic and very warm string tone that shines an unexpected light on the composer’s relationship to his antecedents. There is an overall cragginess to this interpretation, a kind of episodic handling of the material that results in a somewhat disjointed rendition that can sometimes be immensely exciting, as in the finale, but that sometimes seems uncertain of where it is going. Of the three symphonies offered with Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, it is No. 4 that comes off best. Gergiev here conducts the 1947 version of the symphony, which is really “No. 4a,” so different is it from the 1930 original. Gergiev uses Prokofiev’s expansion of the material from The Prodigal Son that makes up this work to produce a well-thought-out and genuinely symphonic reading. In both its versions, this symphony tends to come across more as a suite than as a fully integrated work, but Gergiev finds the connective tissue and brings forth a result that, if not wholly convincing, is more so than usual in the case of this symphony. Nos. 6 and 7 are usually more-persuasive symphonies, but neither is compelling as heard here. The intensity and strength of No. 6 are just not there: the finale is very quick and almost lighthearted, quite jarring after the first two movements even though neither of those is as dark-hued as it can be. Intermittently forceful, No. 6 never quite coalesces into the highly personal response to World War II that the composer intended, and the too-light finale undermines the work’s weighty messages even though the orchestra’s playing itself is excellent. As for No. 7, Gergiev’s treatment of it as a more-delicate work does make sense, but this is also a symphony of poise and precision, neither of which it possesses to a significant degree in this performance. All the elements are there, but Gergiev does not knit them together into a persuasive whole: the work is, by intent, not weighty, but it need not be as evanescent as this. Nevertheless, it is a characteristic of Gergiev’s performances that even when they are not wholly satisfactory, some elements of them are enthralling, and that is the case in all these symphonies. Again and again, Gergiev finds a touch of orchestral balance, a usually virtually inaudible middle voice, a rhythmic flourish, to which to draw attention; and he pulls out that element, whatever it may be, to momentary prominence that has just enough time to startle before it is gone. The result is performances that well repay repeated hearings and that show Gergiev’s command of this music and of his orchestra, even when his interpretative decisions sometimes come across as more puzzling than definitive.

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