An expectant buzz pervaded a sold-out L’Auditori and Valery Gergiev was received on stage with rapturous applause. This expectation was not, however, merely for the conductor, and Gergiev might have waited for the shuffling to die down instead of launching straight into Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin. That gorgeous violin entry, heralding the beginning of the Holy Grail’s serene descent to Earth, was rather lost amongst audience. The playing of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra was responsive to Gergiev’s every finger twitch, utterly balanced and pleasurable. Nevertheless, the Prelude ended as abruptly as it started, leaving the distinct impression that the Grail had been unceremoniously dropped, rather than graciously placed down by its angelic violinist couriers. They seemed almost surprised to be deprived of a delicate fade into silence, which would have applied a truly magical varnish to the final bars.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

The violins were given more of a chance to impress at the beginning of Le Poème de l’extase, with its icily shimmering colours in the high voices of the orchestra. Scriabin’s ambitious intention was to create a work of total art – a notion not too far removed from Wagner’s own ideas – by appealing to all the senses and thus provoking a spiritual transformation in its listeners. The chill of the beginning was certainly a contrast to the boiling, frenzied exaltations of the middle and end. I have never heard a string section so able to give the winds a run for their money in terms of sheer volume. It felt that the pealing and penetrating brass, including the shrieking trumpets in their top register, were competing, perhaps overly, with the veritable wall of sound being emitted from the huge forces in front. Gergiev certainly let them have it, but any further thoughts of over-indulgence were banished by the nature of this orgiastic piece. The sound writhed around, ringing off the walls of the hall and vibrating up through the floor: a truly ecstatic climax.  

The audience was in for a sprint through Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, which Gergiev pounded out in less than forty minutes. This was generally a pity, notably at the beginning: the bassoon solo was too fast and too strident, thus engendering none of the ominous anticipation that builds towards the sudden attack halfway through this first movement, which was less thrilling as a consequence. Some things stood out, though: one’s heart goes out to the double basses, who are saddled with a tremolo at forte-fortissimo for 35 bars at the most passionate part of the movement, while the rest of the strings get the melody. With a few grimaces of pain, the intensity was, commendably, kept up until the very end. The cellos sang their delicious little counter-melody in the final B major section to hair-raising effect, and the brass were equally lovely over the strings’ descending pizzicato scale, itself played as tightly as if on one instrument. 

The lilting second movement benefited better than the first from Gergiev’s still-speedy treatment, rolling along nicely despite its unbalanced meter of 5/4. The cellos settled beautifully into the melody from the start, setting the scene for what was an energetic and spirited interpretation. Unfortunately, the accelerated tempo and heightened volume rendered the already-quick Allegro molto vivace the weakest of the four. Despite some frankly amazing attack and clarity from the strings, given the relentless pace Gergiev had set them, it became tiring to listen to and the emptily joyful conclusion was rather too hysterical, after the excesses of the Scriabin and the unexpectedly uniform treatment of the first movement. The orchestra pushed on through the Adagio lamentoso, leaving little time for reflection or appreciation of the achingly devastating melodies played by intersecting strings and woodwind. Gergiev’s theatrical conducting here was arguably a result of an intense involvement with the music but, once again because of the pace, came across as an insincere distraction.   

Fortunately, the conclusion was more satisfying; the low brass chorale that heralds the end of the movement provided a rare moment of emotion and beauty, and was played with real feeling. Not to be outdone, the close harmonies in the divided violas, cellos and basses were of a breathtaking clarity that was nonetheless charged with grief.