Cold wind from the steppes The motherland's fertile ground

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The Independent Culture
Gergiev series London As the broad historical scope of Valery Gergiev's ongoing Mariinsky-Kirov series shows, the essence of Russian music lies in its consistency: a sad, endless melody that binds the school's 19th-century origins to the uncertain outcome of today.

Being less a matter of individual voice than of collective soul, Russian music often benefits from sympathetic performers. The painful solitude of Shostakovich's 1975 Viola Sonata, conveyed with deep feeling by Yuri Bashmet at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday,was both intensely personal and intensely Slavic, cold comfort distilled from the same source as the icy opening of Prokofiev's heroic cantata, Alexander Nevsky (drawn from the soundtrack to the Eisenstein film).

Given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choral Society, with Gergiev himself conducting, at the Royal Festival Hall the following day, Nevsky made a special impact coupled with Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, for despite the oriental glitter of this sumptuous musical storybook, the pensive violin refrain and quiet bassoon introduction to the "Tale of the Kalandar Prince" sang the same old song of Russian sorrow.

As artistic director of the Kirov, Gergiev was the ideal exponent for both works, probing their material to find points of generic connection. At his command, Rimsky's wholesale repetitions became pointed and cumulative, not a substitute for composition.Prokofiev's no less blatant recycling of ideas sounded equally authentic, integral to a style that applies a mastery of situations to the broadest dramatic effect.

Partly, this confidence also resulted from the sheer joy of hearing the music of these composers realised with such sincere brilliance. Delicate flute and clarinet solos in Rimsky's second movement, and a secure, distinguished tone from the cellos in thethird, were one aspect of this pleasure. In the cantata, orchestral textures ran the entire gamut of possibility, from the baleful woodwind lines of "Russia under the Mongolian Yoke" to the bells and brass of the patriotic finale.

But the real test was Gergiev's conducting in "The Battle on the Ice". Here, after screeching horns had prised apart chorus and orchestra through a grim crescendo that boiled over into a climax of empty triumph, he played the composer's master card with military precision: a coda of tragic Russian melancholy. Then a dirge, "Field of the Dead", that packed half an hour of Gorecki-type pathos into a mere five minutes - and with more substance.

There was similar compression in the Shostakovich: gaunt, death-haunted, and a thousand miles from the generous valediction of Brahms's First Viola Sonata and the simplicity of the Two Songs for alto and viola, Op91. Larissa Diadkova was the capable if formal soloist, with veteran pianist Mikhail Muntian accompanying throughout. Half of the duo that premiered the Shostakovich, Muntian matched Bashmet's persuasive flair with calm authority, turning sparse counterpoint into visions of vast and primitive Russia. Is this the focus of the people's longing? A final return to the emptiness of their motherland? As the closing quotes from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata dissolved into the viola's numbing final note, it certainly seemed so: vestiges of warmth felt only in relation to the absolute zero of oblivion.