Valery Gergiev likes challenges. He is never happier than when conducting some impossibly long work, especially when it’s on an off night between five-hour opera performances. On Monday, he came to the Kennedy Center (courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society) with “his” Mariinsky Orchestra and this year’s musical marathon, which they’ve already taken to a couple of other cities: Stravinsky’s three early and perhaps most famous ballets, “The Firebird,” “Petrushka,” and “The Rite of Spring,” performed in their entirety, back to back.
It was one of the best concerts I’ve heard from them.
Gergiev has made of himself a quasi-daemonic figure, in the sense of mystery rather than evil. His energy and workload seem superhuman, fueled by a restless brilliance and ambition that lead him, sometimes, to take on more than he should. I have often heard him be both exciting and sloppy; and I have sometimes heard him be colorless, as if briefly overcome by his own punishing workload. But on Monday, he simply seemed balanced. The raw energy was funneled into searing chords in “The Firebird,” and the little dance tunes in “Petrushka” tripped artlessly off his waggling fingers.
Orchestras can grow weary of being stereotyped according to their national origins, but there was no mistaking the fact that with this early-period Stravinsky, both Gergiev and the orchestra were on home turf. There’s an athletic component to music: These scores are in the musicians’ fingers and ears and hearts, and they donned a mantle of Stravinsky, sounding at once vital and elegant.
In reductive, music-historical terms, Stravinsky can be heard as a bridge between the rich orchestral color of his 19th-century predecessors, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, and the agitated syncopations and biting sarcasm characteristic of his successor Shostakovich. This is a limiting view to place upon such rich and theatrical music (“Firebird,” elegant! “Petrushka,” satirical!), but the orchestra brought both the color and the biting edge to their playing.
Performing the three scores together certainly encouraged this kind of chronological view, tracing as it did in microcosm a chapter of Stravinsky’s own development. (So did the evening’s juxtaposition with the National Gallery of Art’s just-ended show about the Ballets Russes, which offered a chance to see the ballets’ original sets and costumes.) “Rite of Spring” has been much celebrated this year, a century after it was written, as a pathbreaking score and a watershed moment and a seminal work and other similarly hyperbolic, if not inaccurate, epithets, but hearing all three pieces together showed how many similarities there actually are between certain driving passages of “Firebird,” however brilliant its melodies, and “Rite’s” deliberately quirky, angular throbbings. Indeed, I found “Firebird” the most arresting experience of the three works, in part because the score was freed from the limited suite form in which it’s most frequently given in the concert hall; heard in its entirety, the music had more audible energy and litheness than I remembered.
Actually, “Rite” felt a little anticlimactic — precisely because it was beautifully played, with sweeping lines and an eye to beauty rather than the manufactured frenzy the score sometimes inspires from overeager conductors. Where one might have expected searing wildness, Gergiev was a model of urbanity, with economic gestures, little flicks of his hands. This score, once deemed unplayable, has become a virtuosic calling card; but this performance did not always have the adrenaline that “Firebird” had had earlier in the evening. It might simply have been that the performers were all a little tired, at this point in the tour, by the end of a three-hour concert.