Throughout much of his career, Valery Gergiev has been loyal to his homeland, a distinctly and self-consciously Russian conductor. He has served as music director of the Mravinsky Orchestra for the past twenty-five years; and during that time, he has mostly confined himself to recording (and sometimes rerecording) Russian repertory. What else can one say about a conductor who followed up his recording of the complete Prokofiev symphonies by embarking on a cycle of the complete Shostakovitch symphonies? Between those two ambitious projects, Gergiev revisited both Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, this time recording the entire ballet, and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. He also seems to have become the go-to accompanist for any young firebrand's recording of Rachmaninoff piano concertos, a role he has most recently played for Lang Lang and Denis Matsuev. Whereas many conductors like to begin their careers specializing in the music of their native countries, then branch out into more basic repertory, Gergiev has thus remained defiantly true to his origins. After all this time, we're still awaiting his first recording of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony.
Now, with his appointment as music director of the London Symphony.
Orchestra, Gergiev finally seems to be expanding
his horizons. These two discs represent his first incursion into French
repertory, and I have to admit that even though I admire many of his
performances of Russian music, I didn't quite know what to expect here. In
fact I can only think of two Russian conductors who chose to specialize in
French music: Serge Koussevitsky and Evgeni Svetlanov. After having fled the
Bolsheviks, Koussevitsy established a home base in Paris on his way to becoming
music director in Boston, and he knew Ravel and Debussy personally. His
performances of their music still sound deeply affecting and authoritative
today, even given the limitations of the recordings (which were mostly made on
78s). Svetlanov is another story altogether. A dependable, sometimes commendable
interpreter of Russian music, his performances of French repertory are entirely
surreal: Debussy filtered through Tchaikovsky and Moussorsky. No one who heard
his infamous La Mer back in the
day was left unscarred. I still wake up screaming.
I'm happy to report that Gergiev's approach to these familiar scores is at least idiomatic. He avoids the brusque gestures, thick textures, and somber colors that characterized Svetlanov's performances. On the Ravel disc, which is I think the more successful of the two, Gergiev lets the music breathe: there's a lightness and transparency to the sound he conjures up, and plenty of color and atmosphere. Gergiev has always been a very individual, charismatic leader; his performances often sound like no one else's. This can sometimes be a very good thing (as witness his altogether remarkable recordings of Scheherazade and The Rite of Spring), and sometimes not (his recent mauling of the Rachmaninoff Second). In the present instances, his individualism produces mixed results: the Daphnis and Chloe works out very well, not so much his La Mer.
In Ravel's huge "choreographic poem,"
Gergiev pays close attention to the narrative: his interpretive touches add an
appropriate sense of playful humor and eroticism to the individual episodes. He
can whip a lot of excitement in the more exuberant music, but he is equally
attentive to the more inward, indolent scenes, "the murmur of brooklets formed
by dew," the sensuous interplay of the lovers. My only complaint here is the
concluding "danse generale" where I miss the lift, exhilaration, and
muscular release that other conductors, not all of them French, have brought to
this music. In the end this performance can be enthusiastically recommended to
fans of the conductor, but those looking for a stand-alone version of the work
should opt for the recent recording (also an SACD) by James Levine and the
Boston Symphony. Levine gives the score a shimmering sense of magic and youthful
athleticism that's missing here. After having heard the Pavane
one too many times over the course of my listening career, I regret to say, that
most performances now sound the same to me, as does this one. Sorry, but there
it is. If I heard the piece played by orchestra of kazoos, it would probably
sound the same. In the Bolero,
Gergiev's point making is self-defeating: he slows the music down in order to
better characterize each repetition of Ravel's banal theme. The result is a Bolero
that drags, and that's the one thing a Bolero
must never do.
Choppy waters characterize Gergiev's La Mer: the music doesn't flow. Here again he tries to do too much, is continually slowing down, and then speeding up again. These self-conscious tempo adjustments give the music a nervous edge that feels entirely wrong. In the end, Gergiev's strong-arm approach makes this ingenuously cohesive score sound episodic. But I will say one thing: he is never boring. This performance has many surprising turns; and though I often found myself asking, "Now why did he do that," I never lost interest, was always wondering what he was going to do next. And the climactic storm he conjures up in the last movement is as apocalyptic and terrifying as any I've heard.
The Prelude is atmospheric, gorgeously shaped and played, but doesn't quite build to as stirring a climax as more classic versions by Munch, MTT, and Bernstein, to name but a few. Jeux, however, is a complete success. This wonderful score has never achieved the popularity it deserves because conductors tend to underplay it. For me it was Leonard Bernstein who first proved that this ballet (whose playful subject is sexual flirtation) should be presented boldly, assertively. Here Gergiev's robust approach pays big dividends; this is the best Jeux I've ever heard, and I don't think it's a coincidence that, at 18 minutes, it is also the fastest.
On both these discs, the London Symphony performs
magnificently: their long experience in this repertory shows at every turn.
Though some recent LSO "Live" releases have had sub-par sound (I'm
thinking of the recent disc of Nielsen symphonies by Colin Davis), that's not
the case here. Produced by the estimable James Mallinson, these recordings are
spacious, transparent, richly detailed, and also full of warmth. In the end,
I'm left with a mixed recommendation. For fans of Gergiev, these performances
will be self-recommending. For others, the pluses (demonstration quality sound,
virtuosic orchestral playing, and adventurous interpretations) may well outweigh
the minuses (occasional willfulness). Your call.