The Kirov at the Proms: Russian depths

At the Proms last weekend, the Kirov under Valery Gergiev gave three amazing performances from their core repertoire, says Edward Seckerson

The weekend began in a mood of resistance (Boris Godunov) and ended in a hundred shades of defiance (Shostakovich's Symphony No 4). In between, 2,000 years of Christianity were wrung through the hands of one Russian soul – Sofia Gubaidulina. The Kirov were at the Proms and didn't we know it.

To hear this company – this orchestra, this chorus, these soloists – in the repertoire that they live and breathe daily is something unique, something easy to recognise but more difficult to define. It has to do with a relationship with their conductor, Valery Gergiev, which has now moved beyond mutual understanding to a kind of musical symbiosis. They breathe as one. They phrase as one – complex, subtly nuanced phrases. There's a little bit of Russian history in every inflection. Then there's the colour, the nature of the sound. All those present at Saturday's concert performance of Musorgsky's original seven-scene version of Boris Godunov will have taken the memory of it home with them. The dark, grainy voices of the chorus, a sound of such quiet intensity that a single line of orthodox chant barely murmured from the back of the platform would fill the Albert Hall.

Hear those voices and you are on the steps of the Cathedral of the Assumption within the Kremlin for Boris's coronation or deep inside the Chudov Monastery. There's actually no such thing as a Kirov "concert performance" of anything, leave alone Boris. You are there, right there in the Mariinsky Theatre. A potent theatricality informs every bar. The stakes are raised with every bar. Because every bar is essential, every bar counts for so much in the miraculous concision of Mussorgsky's original. It's extraordinary to watch every last bit-part player in this proud company hanging on to every last word of their fellow performers; to see the magnificent Vladimir Ognovenko (Boris) rising from his chair instantly to assume the highest authority. What an artist this man is. When he died it really was possible to believe that he'd at last found some vestige of humility. And as Gergiev's strings bestowed their final benediction upon him there was a moment or so when I wasn't at all sure that I'd ever heard a more beautiful sound in this hall.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God." That's a pretty good opening line. For the faithful few that gathered the following afternoon for Sofia Gubaidulina's Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St John, the sounds that accompanied it were strongly redolent of the Apocalypse visited upon Boris's Coronation. The clamour of many bells; the gathering of many voices; and the first of several seismic organ solos exploding across the sound spectrum. If the Book of Revelation (the composer's other source) had a sound, this would be it. Something to put the fear of God into us all. Passion, indeed.

But Gubaidulina's storytelling is centred on the slow, expressionless, monotonal basso profundo chanting of the Russian Orthodox liturgy and St John's words finds only intermittent drama and humanity in Gubaidulina's "other self" – music reflecting her deeply rooted kinship with music from Glinka to Shostakovich. When those musics surface in fleeting lyric wind or string or vocal solos, or when she takes a more literal line on such episodes as St John's vision of the "Book of Seven Seals" or "The Road to Golgotha" where half the chorus cry out in recognition of Christ's sanctity, the other half angrily deny it, the effect is profoundly theatrical. But orthodoxy will out and the great length of its unfolding – testing endurance to the limit – once more raised doubts as to whether such an experience, for all its strange, hypnotic power, really belonged in a concert hall.

No doubts whatsoever about Gergiev's stupendous account of Shostakovich's anarchic Fourth Symphony. That a work of such prodigious talent could have languished unperformed for a quarter of a century only to bounce back with redoubled force tells you all you need to know about the indomitable Russian character. There was a lot of it about this weekend.

Prom 48 (Shostakovich) can be heard at www.bbc.co.uk/proms until 1 Sept

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones