Proms

Rotterdam Philharmonic / Valery Gergiev RAH, London / Radio 3
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The Independent Culture
The press release for the encore arrived a week ago. So much for spontaneity. But then even Prom encores aren't generally UK premieres. Stravinsky's Diaghilev-commissioned orchestration of Chopin's Valse brillante - until recently assumed lost - has not been heard anywhere in 70 years. And still, no introductions are necessary. Stravinsky's untarnishable brand of brillante is in the pugnacity, the quirkiness (even clumsiness) of his instrumental deployments. From imperial ballroom to three-ringed circus, Chopin rather enjoys the ride. Better yet, this shameless transcription sounds like the work of an endearingly ham-fisted pianist, which all adds to the illusion. A tasty canape, an appetiser.

Except that it wasn't. Didn't someone get this programme the wrong way round? Or was it their theory that after the emotional catharsis of Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony there would be no place for us to go but up? They got that right. Valery Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic gave a most remarkable account of the piece. Like it or not, some sounds stay with you like toothache from the first moment you hear them. The long, persistent B flat emerging in the horns from the brow-beating climax of Prokofiev's first movement is one. A terrible throbbing, an unendurable pain - not physical, but emotional. To watch Gergiev home in on that moment, his entire body vibrating right through to the tips of his fingers (no baton), is to appreciate how deeply such music has entrenched itself in the Russian psyche. This tensile quality in Gergiev's conducting makes for an extraordinary sense of heightened anxiety. Stillness, quiet, silence, is deafening, threatening. An uneasy peace. And then you remember that the symphony was sketched during the war but actually composed during 1945-7, a time of victory, rejoicing. You remember, because Prokofiev never wants you to forget. The whole work is riddled with aftershocks, the percussive sound of time marching on. Like clockwork. Like history will repeat itself. Even the enforced merry-making of the finale ultimately collapses into two not- so-silent screams, only to goose-step off into a bloody sunset. The Rotterdam Philharmonic should hang on to Gergiev. He harnesses their dark, forthright sound to winning effect. There's real fibre, an imperative quality, in this playing. Did the Concertgebouw once sound like this?

In the circumstances, a return to innocence, to childhood was perhaps our best refuge after all. Another rising young Kirov star, Anna Netrebko, revisited Mussorgsky's The Nursery in mercurial, quick-witted orchestrations from the Siberian-born composer Edison Denisov. Netrbko is a charmer - fresh, engaging timbre, eagerly projected - though the gamut of her expression here was in strict accordance with the Kirov's guidelines on little-girl-blue acting (no tomboys in Russia, right?). But at least it was idiomatic. Gergiev's moody account of Debussy's La Mer was not. But we knew where we were: the Baltic. Chilly northern waters, these, prone to heavy mists and sudden squalls. And how distant the horizon. Paint it grey.

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