Theologians tell us that only G-d in His/Her/Its Majesty can conduct operas in two distant cities on the same night, but don't you believe them. For the past decade or so, Valery Gergiev has been working at such an ever accelerating pace that one day soon I'm certain an audience in St. Petersburg will be listening to his Beethoven Fifth at the exact same moment an audience in New York City is welcoming him to the podium to lead a performance of Gotterdammerung. In fact his web page claims that on September 8th of 2003, he conducted a gala performance of La Traviata at the Met AND (later that same day or evening?) the New York Philharmonic's opening concert. For most conductors this would be a career highlight; but for Gergiev, it was no doubt just another step toward omnipresence. And by the way, it's not just his jet-setting that's approaching the speed of light. Last season at the Met, he apparently took the opening scene of Otello at such a bristling tempo that for once the chorus sounded as if they did fear for their lives.
But even more impressive than the velocity with which he moves from place to place or the sheer number of concerts and operas he leads in any given year is the consistently high quality of the performances themselves. There can be no doubting that Gergiev belongs on the short list of the most prominent conductors of our time, and anyone who does doubt it is hereby referred to his electrifying recordings of The Rite of Spring and Scheherazade, both of which demonstrate his ability to reimagine an overly familiar score. Were it not for the modern sound, his performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony could be mistaken for a Mengelberg air-check.
There are various and sundry approaches to this, the greatest first symphony ever written. Certainly at one extreme, you'll find conductors like Davis and Monteux who stress the classical elements in the score, its sense of balance and proportion, and thereby resist the temptation to exaggerate, leaving the "fantastic" elements of the symphony to pretty much speak for themselves. And at the other extreme, there are improvisatory conductors like Munch and Bernstein, who are all too happy to get down and dirty, to revel in the work's surging originality and emotionalism. But there are also many idiosyncratic, if not eccentric performances that work almost as well. Markevitch, Mitropolous, Klemperer, Barbirolli, Kempe, Kubelik, Leibowitz, and Van Beinum have all left us memorable performances that bear an indelibly personal stamp and are worth seeking out.
It was into this rather too broad category that I was at first going to assign this new performance by Gergiev; for on first hearing I was more than favorably impressed. Gergiev shapes the music, especially the more lyric passages in the first and third movements, with an individual, if not imaginative touch. In the long introduction that takes a rather intemperate, restless path to the statement of the idee fixe, in the gathering exhilaration of the Ball scene, the meandering walk in the countryside, Gergiev manages a convincing ebb and flow. Most crucially, in the dramatic passages he generates the requisite dynamism, momentum and heat. Unfortunately, repeated listening to this performance did not sustain my initial enthusiasm. Over time it became clear that in spite of its considerable virtues something essential was missing.
The Missing Ingredient
To solve the mystery, I decided to try a performance of the work I had only heard once, and then a long time ago. This was a recording made in 1973 by the still vastly underrated Jean Martinon with the ORTF Orchestra on EMI. Though Martinon is more like Davis/Monteux than Munch/Bernstein, I immediately felt a spontaneity, a sense of air and light that's altogether missing in Gergiev. It's true that Martinon sometimes keeps his orchestra on a tight rein, but there's a responsiveness in the playing that I wasn't hearing from the Vienna Philharmonic, who follow Gergiev's lead dutifully but without any special warmth or urgency.
In fact, the more I listened to the Gergiev, the more it reminded me of the infamous Boulez performance. Superficially these recordings couldn't be more different: Boulez is controlled, Gergiev freewheeling. But at heart, both these performances are willful and deliberate in a way that subverts the character of the music. Too often Gergiev reminded me of a stern schoolmaster staring down a classroom of unruly children; the glowering presence we see on the album's cover. In the end, his strong-arm, unsmiling approach is stylish, but it lacks the revolutionary fervor, the sense of play and invention that make this music forever young. And over the course of an entire 47-minute symphony, Gergiev's insistence eventually grows tiresome.
Now I know there are those of you who will read between the lines of the last few paragraphs and think, "Well, this pompous bozo didn't like the performance; but actually it sounds pretty interesting, and I'm going to give it a whirl." Having myself read between the lines of many a negative review, I encourage readers to follow their instincts and QUESTION AUTHORITY! But not in this case. There's another problem here not so easily overcome, and that is the sound. Remember the early, horrific days of digital recording when producers determined that we respond to the new technology gave us frighteningly close-up recordings of orchestras, then compounded the felony with lots of highlighting? (Thereby sending us scurrying back to our turntables.) Well, this recording isn't quite that bad, but it comes awfully close. The shallow, opaque image, squalling violins and tubby bass will all bring back painful memories. And one last damning criticism: this performance has the dullest-sounding church bell in the entire recorded history of the work! It's a shy, reticent church bell that drops the jaw with its lack of affect.
Certainly the one thing you cannot deny Berlioz is his genius for orchestration. Depending on the conductor, the Fantastique can sound dry or full-bodied, tart or sweet. But it should not sound grating and ugly, which it is exactly how it sounds here. The combination of Gergiev's bluntness and the coarse engineering makes me for once understand why some contemporary critics (including Felix Mendelssohn) thought this score impossibly vulgar.
As for La Mort De Cleopatre, it's very early Berlioz: turbulent, melodramatic, and ultimately not that interesting for all its too self-conscious striving for effects that were, at this point in his career, beyond his grasp. Gergiev and Borodina approach the music like true believers, but it's not quite their fault one remains unconvinced. This piece is mostly for Berlioz completists, but I suspect that even they won't be returning to it often.
Those looking for a single Symphonie Fantastique should go for the XCRD2 of Munch's high-voltage 1962 Boston Symphony performance. It's worth every penny. Those on a budget would do well to read WD's review of Colin Davis's most recent performance with the LSO, which is mid-priced and features extraordinary sound. Though the sound isn't nearly as good, I'd also recommend the Bernstein/NYPO performance. It comes with a characteristically stimulating lecture on the music, and is one of Bernstein's greatest achievements. And I would hope that Gergiev would at some point in the future return to this score (but with a different producer). In fact I'm looking forward to the next phase of his career, to see what happens after he realizes he has nothing left to prove.