Why I am sorely disillusioned by Gergiev

Dear Pliable, Recent postings have prompted me to return to my original story about Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. Jfl posted a valuable article from the New York Times (8th November 2008), in which Gergiev is reported as remaining ‘unrepentant, even proud, of his role’ in the Kirov’s victory concert for Russia in Ossetia: ‘Morally, I am 100 percent sure I did the right thing.’ And as for Western criticism? ‘So what? I am Ossetian.’ Well, that’s fine, then.

It appears extraordinarily disingenous of Gergiev to accept Western patronage while dismissing his paymasters as politically irrelevant. Even more pertinent to the LSO, however, is Michael McManus’s piece ‘Podium Politics’ in November’s Gramophone. McManus, a one-time parliamentary candidate, reports that during a concert break in one of the LSO’s recent Edinburgh performances he was quizzed by orchestra members and asked: ‘What’s the truth about Ossetia then?’ McManus’s conclusion is: ‘Evidently their principal conductor had also been sharing his trenchant views with them, in no uncertain terms.’ This is utterly indefensible. If there’s one thing orchestral musicians hate, it’s being talked at, but it beggars belief that LSO players should now have to take political lectures from Gergiev. The old ‘buccaneers’ would have chewed him up and spat him out. What is going on?

Norman Lebrecht puts his finger on it in his trenchant online article Gergiev is selling us short’ for La Scena Musicale (www.scena.org) in October. The LSO comes a poor third behind Gergiev’s loyalty to his Caucasian origins and his Mariinsky empire. ‘The LSO used to be London’s top draw. No longer. At the South Bank, the London Philharmonic has rejuventated its concerts... under Vladimir Jurowski and Yannick Nezet-Seguin..., while the Philharmonia has received a much-needed glamour infusion from the ex-LA maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen.’ Even more damning is Lebrecht’s judgement that: ‘Against stiffened competition, the LSO has allowed itself to become an unprotected subsidiary and bag-carrier of Gergiev Global.’ Ouch!

This view is increasingly supported among the broadsheet critics. Anthony Holden, reviewing Vladimir Jurowski’s ‘Revealing Tchaikovsky’ Festival in the Observer (9th November 2008), reports that: ‘The festival also demonstrated how much the LPO has improved under Jurowski’s leadership, as has the Philharmonia... Suddenly, the South Bank has two world-class orchestras ready to challenge the recent dominance of the LSO.’ (Jurowski is seen in the accompanying photos - Pliable).

Richard Morrison, writing in the Times (26th September 2008), says of Jurowski and the LPO: ‘What impressses about Vladimir Jurowski almost as much as his insouciantly assured conducting technique and the high intelligence of his interpretations is the boldness that he shows in programming the London Philharmonic’s concerts. This isn’t yet the most virtuoso orchestra in London. But true music-lovers are flocking to hear it because Jurowski is devising such intriguing combinations of works, then coaxing his players to perform them so persuasively.’

The LSO now faces serious challenges in terms of repertoire and performance. I have already referred in detail to Sir Colin Davis’s tenure as Principal Conductor as a Golden Age on account of the exceptionally high quality of performance and breadth of repertoire, in much of which he remains not only a fount of experience but a supreme exponent. Criticisms of 19th Century bias are silenced by a procession of high quality reviews and peerless live performances that fill CD shelves and win awards. Sir Colin’s performances of 20th Century music continue to be outstanding, and he is giving premieres of 21st Century works.

Looking through the 2008-2009 Barbican season, Sir Colin is conducting 10 of around 60 home performances, including works by Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Elgar, Mozart, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Verdi and Walton’. The latter’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ was as bristling and uncompromising a start to Sir Colin’s season as one could have wished, and I have no reason to believe that the remaining concerts will not play to his strengths. I shall be hearing them.

While Sir Colin conducts 10 performances as ex-Principal Conductor, Gergiev, as Principal, is conducting a mere 11, including works by Bartok, Berlioz, Korngold, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Wagner. However, having already endured an aural battering in two concerts from the Rachmaninov ‘mini-festival’, I no longer feel I can trust Gergiev even in his native repertoire. The cavalier change of a promising programme for 29th January (see your posting) to a repeat of the ‘Rite of Spring’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ from 27th January only reiterates what is already a dreadfully lazy and inept combination. In any case, I still have powerful memories of Kertesz and Haitink in ‘Bluebeard’. Interestingly, I note that ticket sales for 29th January are neither strong in the Stalls nor the Balcony and frankly terrible in the Circle. That tells its own story, and I shall be returning my own tickets to add to the great un-sold.

In the 2007-2008 season, Gergiev again conducted a mere 10 concerts and delivered, allegedly under some protest, his highly controversial Mahler cycle. Although Gergiev, like all principal conductors, extends his engagements with the LSO through its tours, what happens at home remains vitally important, and the current impression is not flattering.

Meanwhile, on the South Bank, Vladimir Jurowski is conducting 14 of 42 concerts in the 2008-2009 season as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (from September 2007) with whom he works intensively as music director of Glyndbourne Opera (from January 2001). He is also a principal artist with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). He and the LPO are on tour in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

Jurowski’s opening concert for the 2008-2009 season, challenging and intelligent, was regarded as nothing less than a manifesto: Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony, Turnage’s ‘Mambo, Blues and Tarantella – Violin Concerto’ (world première), and Ligeti’s Atmosphères eliding without a break into Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Three days later, Jurowski conducted a concert of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Hartmann’s Gesangsszene and Brahms’s Second Symphony. Exemplary planning and execution garnered the highest praise.

In October and November, Jurowski acted as artistic director of the ‘Revealing Tchaikovsky’ Festival. I had hoped that Gergiev might offer us something special on Tchaikovsky; indeed, I have heard him give a searing Pathétique. However, Gergiev’s desultory Rachmaninov mini-festival, two piano concertos and three symphonies cheek by jowl in blaring, under-rehearsed performances did not inspire confidence. While Gergiev is a man of intense emotions, Jurowski is an intellectual and philosopher, and this is apparent in the excellent Festival brochure and programming which demonstrate Tchaikovsky’s greatness by placing him in his wider musical and cultural context. Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss, in delectable tandem with Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, was followed by the lovely Iolanta.

With the OAE, Jurowski presented two versions of the Romeo & Juliet Overture and a related duet around the literary connections between Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare. And so it went on, with illuminating refractions from Kalinnikov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann, Shostakovich and Taneyev. Pre-concert talks, chamber concerts and other diverse events provided further stimulus to an exemplary model of what excellent programming can achieve.
Belatedly, and now with much regret, I caught up with our ‘other Russian in town’ on 5th November. The hyper-sensitive Tchaikovsky found kindred spirits in both Schumann and Byron’s Manfred, and his glorious Manfred Symphony was preceded by Schumann’s wonderful Overture and Shostakovich’s tormented Second Cello Concerto. Jurowski struck a perfect balance between brooding poetry and dynamic energy in the Overture, giving space to lyrical passages without enfeebling Schumann’s propulsive rhythms. Mario Brunello’s lyrical approach to the haunted Shostakovich was superbly accompanied by the LPO’s spikey woodwinds, confidently duetting horns and tick-tocking percussion.

Jurowski’s Manfred Symphony was magnificent in its structural grip and subtle integration of disparate moods and tempi. The LPO strings striding down into the sonorous depths of the double-basses plumbed Manfred’s tortured soul. Violins were ravishing in their high-flying melodies and exquisite as gossamer at the end of the second movement, richly supported by vibrant violas and cellos. Woodwinds were a fulsome choir and richly characterful as soloists; brass were bright, burnished and refulgent. The tonal weight of the orchestra at full stretch in the first and last movements was truly awesome, and on this form the LPO is a world-class orchestra.

Although still only 36 years old, Jurowski has been causing a critical stir since his LPO debut in 2001, and a survey of broadsheet reviews attests to his remarkable gifts. Russian by birth, Jurowski’s German training and experience account for his depth in Austro-German reportoire. He is undoubtedly a prodigious talent with a refreshingly transparent technique; solos are beautifully tiered and graded, cues and dynamics are crystal clear, and with the smallest of gestures, such as a little nod or flick of the elbow, he will get the violins to nuance an exquisite phrase. Intensely concentrated, he does not throw himself about during the loudest passages.

Jurowski makes a fascinating distinction between what is expressive and emotional in music. ‘Expressivity is the active force that unlocks the emotion… It doesn’t matter what I feel about the music…I agree with Stravinsky that music can but express itself.’ (Interview with Edward Seckerson in The Independent, 19th September 2007). To see how he achieves this, watch the newly-released EMI DVD of the Met’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Mature beyond his years, Jurowski already displays the enviable ability to take an overview of a piece and yet give detail time to breathe within the space needed. He releases emotion through the subtlest expressivity, yet unleashes energy that can be breathtakingly thrilling. The LPO has done marvellously well in nurturing this exceptional talent, and music-lovers are in for wonderful treats on the South Bank.

And what of the LSO? They could have had Chailly, or maybe even Haitink in the interim, but the biggest and best catch, Mariss Jansons, slipped through the net. The Great Gordan (Nikolitch) has gone, and Guest Leaders trail in and out. The Gewandhaus’s amazing Sebastian Breuninger, by far the best in a fabulous Haitink-led Strauss concert last June, has not been seen again. As an émigré myself, imagine my surprise when I found not only Andrew Haveron (frequent LSO Guest Leader), but also the LSO’s Principal Second Violin, Evgeny Grach, guesting for the LPO! It was comforting to find myself in such distinguished LSO company.

After decades of commitment to the LSO, I now feel an increasing sense of loss. I am sorely disillusioned by Gergiev who, in his pomp, is at once more inflated yet less effectual as a musician, and I shall definitely be returning my tickets. In the interim, I can barely wait for my next outing with Jurowski and the LPO in December: Mahler’s Symphony No.10 – Adagio, and Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I have signed on as a Friend of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Regards 'Hedgehog'

Thanks for that 'Hedgehog'. Back in 2006 I ran a post about Vladimir Jurowski titled Zen and the Art of Shostakovich. Your observation that 'Jurowski is an intellectual and philosopher' resonates so strongly with that post that I thought it worth quoting Jurowski's words again.

'When I played Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony in Russia, I put it together with his song-cycle on Japanese texts. There I am emphasising the rather tragic aspect of the symphony, which is often neglected, and also the oriental touch about the first movement. I mean like Zen, like Japanese Zen. If you listen to the flute duet in the middle of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, with the tam-tam and the harp - it's the most peculiar music, and the only thing it makes you think of is the last movement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. That piece is totally Zen, and Shostakovich said the one piece he would take to a desert island would be Das Lied. But Russians have always had their own specific perception of Buddhism. If you read Tolstoy, a lot of his writings coincide with Buddhist thought, and I think the most Buddhist aspect of Russian culture is its passivity. Now, Shostakovich cannot be counted as passive, but this passage in the Sixth Symphony is completely static.

I discovered the Tao Te King of Lao Tse about five years ago. It's one of the most important books in the history of mankind. We were never able to have a Bible at home, but this was 1987, so Gorbachev's glasnost was beginning to have its effects, and there were unofficial booksellers on the streets. It was a Bible in Russian, and I still have it. My parents thought I was losing my mind.The way yoga changes your perception of the world is amazing. It's another kind of ecstatic experience.'
Here, to illustrate what 'Hedgehog' described as Vladimir Jurowski's subtle sensitivity is an excerpt from his interpretation of another Mahler work, Das klagende Lied, a performance that also provided the accompanying screen grabs.

Neither 'Hedgehog' nor On An Overgrown Path have any connection with the London Philharmonic or any other orchestra other than as ticket buyers. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Eka Gvatua said…
On March 21 and 22 of 2010 in front of the Davies Symphony Hall in San Fracisco a number of protesters stood with signs against Gergiev. Not Gergiev the conductor, but Gergiev the political figure. They called him “The Conductor of Propaganda!” because of the lies he told during the Tkhinvali concert after the Russian-Georgian war. He told the world in Russian and in broken English that Georgian soldiers killed 2000 peaceful, sleeping Ossetians, he lied. He told the world that the truth of what happened in Tkhinvali should be known. However, in the numerous interviews that he gave after this concert he never admitted that he was wrong. He insisted on the false facts! The protesters passed out leaflets with information from several credible sources which included a photo of a concentration camp not far from the stage, a cage that held about 100 Georgian elderly men and women. He played a concert for the occupying forces of Georgia. He became a politician and stopped being a musician. He became a business man and stopped being a conductor. He became a tool of propaganda!
Kelly Norman said…
It is so frustrating to read continued misunderstandings in Western sources about what happened in Sputh Ossetia. Gergiev had the figures inflated by a factor of 10, and those angry at him accept a Georgian fairytale account. But if you were paying attention on August 7-10, as I was, you would have read identical reports from pro-Georgian and pro-Russian sources: on August 7, Shakasvilli made a televised speech assuring South Ossetians he meant them no harm. Hours later, he bombed the heck out of Tskinvali. (Russian peacekeepers, set by the UN since 1994 to guard the town along with Georgian peacekeepers had reported before the bombing that their Georgian counterparts mysteriously disappeared.) Russia responded, as the US would have done if say, Canada bombed Quebec and Quebec asked for their help. Georgia must have known that would happen, but started the conflict anyway. I wouldn't consider Gergiev a great news source, but you know, he new some of the families of the dead.

The concentration camp statement in the last comment is funny. If you search YouTube for the concert you will indeed see a small fenced in area with men in it. They don't look elderly to me! The explanation I have heard is that they were looters caught after the bombing. I followed Amnesty International and other human rights organizations and they actually didn't mention the fence. I have also wondered if they weren't the inmates of the local jail, moved there because of space needs created by the destruction of administrative buildings.

Nothing has ruined my confidence in Western journalism as how badly they screwed up this story, when it was so easy to follow as it happened.

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