“Gergiev, your silence is killing Russian gays!” Activists from Queer Nation had disrupted opening night at the Metropolitan Opera three weeks ago, and with demonstrations outside it was almost inevitable that the same protests would accompany the start of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s three-concert stay at Carnegie Hall. The duplicitous campaign to erase Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality from the historical record had provided some backdrop to contemporary politics at Eugene Onegin, but history played at best a minor role in this protest. Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned all three of the Stravinsky ballets on the programme, was of course gay, but any reference to that, inside or outside the hall, went unnoticed by me. Some applause from the stalls followed the uproar in the gods, probably more to support the incoherent idea that stage and politics ought never to mix than to take a stance on Russian law. Boos quickly followed while Carnegie Hall’s heavies took control of the situation. Valery Gergiev stood impassively throughout, arms raised towards the cellos, ready for an upbeat.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

Whether it was in part a result of the charged atmosphere the protest created, or just because he can, Gergiev thereafter delivered the musical equivalent of a punch to the solar plexus of his detractors. Never before on the Carnegie stage had anyone been dauntless enough (or daft enough) to play the three revolutionary ballets Stravinsky wrote for the Ballets Russes in a single concert. The composer himself nearly did it in 1940, but flinched, performing only a suite from The Firebird to go with Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. This was, needless to say, an awful lot of Stravinsky, especially in Gergiev’s brutal style: it took nearly three and a half hours to get through. It was exhausting. Yet this was the rarest of opportunities to hear Stravinsky’s youthful experimentation in a way that emphasized his development as much as his innovation. The hues of Debussy and Ravel that dominate The Firebird seemed only to underline the inherent strangeness, the savagery, and the destructive zeal of The Rite.

In The Firebird, a work that Stravinsky was not entirely wrong to scorn on account of its length late in life, Gergiev’s tendency towards extremes of tempo dragged out the sagging longueurs of the middle 20 minutes. Otherwise, though, this bird soared. After the introduction’s darkly threatening evocation of Kashchei’s garden, Gergiev drew a levitating shimmer from the Mariinsky’s strings, a leery blend of veiled eroticism and insatiable drive. Snap, fizz, and raw speed quickly took over, in characteristic Gergiev style, and his attention to processes of thematic development was welcome in a performance that, like the two that followed, could have done with a touch more modernist rigor. By the time we reached Kashchei’s “Infernal Dance”, the shackles were truly off, as a flashing, phantasmagoric brilliance took hold with the Firebird’s spell. With Kashchei’s awakening and death, there was an unholy rampage, coarse at times but no less triumphant for it. Kashchei’s palace disappeared in a druggy hazy, before visceral thumps of dissonance were transformed into mediums of total joy.

Petrushka was rather more ragged than the Ravelian sheen of The Firebird allows, full of stark jump cuts and flashes of cross-rhythm to go with its insatiable bitonality. The Shrovetide fair pulsated with energy, and it certainly was not hard to hear pre-echoes of the Rite in its rhythms, nor in the winding flute and bassoon solos. Gergiev shredded the waltz of the ballerina and the Moor so disjunctively that one could easily have forgotten that Petrushka precedes La Valse by nearly a decade. Riots of colour returned for the final tableau, a vast bear towering over drunken, rambunctious peasants, although Petrushka’s death was slightly undersold (even given that Stravinsky is peculiarly ambivalent about it).

And then the Rite. Somehow, its disfigured rhythms and crashing sonorities shocked even more than usual, for which Gergiev must take the credit. Any thought that the Rite might be a technical challenge – or worse, just a technical challenge – was quickly disabused. This was a performance of brute force, with venereal violence straining at the leash. Chords fulgurated through the air as snapping whips enacted abduction. The spring rounds snarled with brassy roars of the crowd baying for the ritual of death, before dangerously fast speeds glinted with the weaponry of rival tribes. The glorification of the chosen one was as grotesque as could be imagined, and the weight of ancestral history and its rituals squashed uneasiness with their power. By the end, this was (barely) controlled carnage, with a final chord so brilliantly uncoordinated that it sounded like a final twisting of a serrated knife. One could almost see the blood splattering – and feel it too.

****1