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Gergiev & His Fresh Young Kirov

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 27, 2006

The Russian jet-setter Valery Gergiev and his excellent young Kirov Orchestra brought a heavy, two-course meal to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday: the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, with soloist Alexander Toradze, and the much less familiar Shostakovich 11th Symphony ("The Year 1905"). Gergiev seems to be everywhere conducting everything these days, expounding on his country's core repertoire with intriguing results.

Gergiev's command over his orchestra is meticulous; he stands on the floor with his musicians, spurning a podium, and they all watch him. Hardly using his baton, he gets audible results from a movement of a finger or simply widening his eyes.

The Kirov and the other top Russian orchestras sound less distinctively Russian than they did a generation ago. The strings have retained the grit and sinew of old, but the winds are now much more cosmopolitan. Gone is the cheesy vibrato in the French horns, and the wail of the oboe (though the Kirov's first-chair had a blazing sonority). The brass overall, while lacking the buttery-smooth blend of the best German and U.S. orchestras, showed no trace of the blatty, unrefined sound of Soviet-era recordings. Gergiev, who spends a great deal of time with top Western orchestras, has a relatively clean slate upon which to develop his sound print -- the vast majority of the players appear to be in their 20s and 30s -- and the overall results are vital, at times galvanic.

The Shostakovich 11th is a challenge for Western audiences. Written ostensibly to commemorate the tragic events at the czar's winter palace in St. Petersburg and their aftermath, the hour-long work requires listeners to grasp interlocking matrices of the historical events depicted, the numerous revolutionary songs sprinkled throughout and their significance, and the composer's continually refracting attitudes toward society and government. This makes for a burdensome overlay on top of the music, which frankly outlasts its welcome by the fourth section. Perfect craftsmanship notwithstanding, the actual musical material is occasionally trite. Moreover, for all his control, Gergiev seemed uninvolved at times. The opening lacked atmosphere (too loud) and he seemed to hold things at a distance in the horrific massacre music.

In the concerto, Toradze employed a prodigious dynamic range, and was poetic rather than impulsive. He gave a bardic rendition of the big cadenza and found variety in the many repetitions of the finale theme. A lovely performance.

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