The second evening of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival offered an interesting programme dynamically conducted by the Russian master. The theme this year was The Great War and while the focus yesterday was on the Western front, tonight zeroed in on the Eastern front. Besides the masculine direction of Gergiev in Janáček’s Taras Bulba Rhapsody for orchestra and the feminine elegance of Lisa Batiashvili in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto in D major, the Rotterdam Philharmonic also offered a diligently executed introduction to Symphony no. 4 in E minor by forgotten composer Nikolai Myaskovsky. Gergiev uses the Rotterdam platform annually to introduce the eager public to works by relatively unknown composers or rarely performed works by known composers. During this edition of the festival, the Rotterdam Philharmonic masterfully executed an uneventful symphony leading to a less than enthusiastic introduction to Myaskovsky. Politically, the entire weekend was in remembrance of the crash of MH17 in Ukraine, and the Georgian Batiashvili impressed with a gutsy statement as encore.

Lisa Batiashvili © Anja Frers
Lisa Batiashvili
© Anja Frers

After a three-minute montage of Romantic images from the 1962 film with Alain Delon, Gergiev opened with Janáček's Taras Bulba adapted from Gogol’s grotesquely tragic war novel set in 16th century Ukraine. In it, the Cossack Taras Bulba loses his two sons in the fight against the Poles. Janáček reworked it into a romantic rhapsody in three tableaux. The first two deal with the tragic deaths of the hero’s sons: Bulba murders his son Andrei for his betrayal in fighting for the Poles, while his other son Ostap is killed by the Poles. The last tableau narrates the hero’s own death. Janáček’s music includes bellicose percussion, romantic strings, and deeply tragic moments. As Gergiev guided the orchestra through the free-flowing pieces, moving from one theme to another, one could not help but miss a bit of finesse. The rush and energy with which he conducted detracted from the romantic intensity: both the lyrical passages between the son and his lover in the second tableau and the rhythmic percussion at the beginning of the third tableau suffered from Gergiev’s pace and the orchestra’s power. Toward the finale, however, the brass and organ provided a rich and layered texture; particularly the brass achieved its notorious brilliance.

Lisa Batiashvili provided the necessary elegance during Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto in D major, resulting in an excellent performance. In the Moderato—Andante, a slow chase between the orchestra and the soloist begins. As Batiashvili exquisitely produced the high notes of the melody and sustained a beautiful pianissimo, Gergiev guided the slow tempi, but ever so dominantly chased Batiashvili along with his orchestra. Especially in the finale, Gergiev continuously simmered around her on the verge of boiling over, but never overpowering his soloist. After the standing ovation, the Georgian’s daring choice of an encore was the gutwrenching protest piece Requiem for Ukraine that the Georgian Igor Loboda composed last June.

From the shadows of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Gergiev introduced Nikolai Myaskovsky to his audience with the tepid, though still exhausting, three-part Symphony no. 4 in E minor. Myaskovsky was a friend of Prokofiev at the St Petersburg Conservatory, and later befriended Shostakovich. He wrote 27 symphonies, only to have his works banned by the Soviets in the late 1940s with the Zhdanov Decree, which also affected Shostakovich and Prokofiev. He was a soldier on the Eastern front during WWI until he was injured. It is this misery, the utter disillusionment from endless suffering of the soldiers, that can at time be felt in his Fourth Symphony. The first movement Andante, mesto con sentimento consists of a simple melody, which the wind section and strings develop from four notes in pianissimo into a large symphonic threat.

Praise is due to the concentration of the orchestra, required to repeat the slow melody over and over without much variation in the development. What the second movement  lacks in tempo and variation, it makes up for with a mood of prolonged fear and dread. Gergiev sustained endless tension to the point of exhaustion. It was during these periods that I lost focus on the music. In the third movement Allegro energico e marcato, Gergiev produced some moments of energy, but couldn't avoid the pitfalls of Myaskovsky’s perfunctory development; it made for a rather dull last part with an unsurprising build up to a generic finale. The festival programming was restricted by its theme of the year 1914, and this possibly may have lead to this unfortunate choice out of all Myaskovsky’s symphonies. That said, the orchestra was in stellar shape, and performed the piece with zeal and admirable stamina. Yet it made me curious to explore Myaskovsky’s other symphonies, but not with any particular sense of urgency.