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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas