Classical music: From Russia with love, fire and death

Kirov Orchestra Royal Festival Hall, London

As originally planned, the Kirov Orchestra's Festival Hall concert last Tuesday was a programme with a message. Stravinsky's Firebird and Scriabin's Prometheus were to have been preceded by the Introduction to Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - the mortally wounded Tristan hoping half for death, and half for the sight of Isolde's ship on the empty sea.

Stravinsky is often regarded as this century's supremely anti-Wagnerian composer. But put the youthful Firebird beside the opulent, post-Wagnerian Prometheus and Tristan itself, and a direct line of ancestry becomes clear. No wonder Stravinsky seems to have had ambiguous feelings about Firebird in later years.

But a last-minute programme change meant that we heard the Prelude to Act III of Wagner's Meistersinger instead - nobly beautiful, sensuous music, but in spirit far removed from Tristan, not to mention Prometheus and Firebird. Never mind, it was an absorbing performance, shaped as though in one huge phrase by the conductor, Valery Gergiev. Then came the astonishing Prometheus, subtitled "The Poem of Fire" - huge orchestra, solo piano and wordless chorus embodying, as Scriabin put it, "the preaching of Christ, the Act of Prometheus". For a piece of music inspired by Christ's thunderous teachings and Prometheus's unbelievable act of self-sacrifice in bringing fire to mankind (thereby incurring divine wrath at its most vindictive), Prometheus is remarkably delicate, even impressionistic, the erotic yearning often more restrained than in the better-known Poem of Ecstasy. Gergiev, the Kirov orchestra and chorus and the pianist Alexander Toradze concentrated on the subtlety: the interplay between orchestra and pensive soloist, the blending and shifting of colours. Perhaps the final, Messianic climax could have been more overwhelming, but it was good to hear the orchestral Scriabin treated as more than a vulgar, self- intoxicated sensationalist. After this it was easier to understand the young Stravinsky's fascination with him.

If Gergiev had intended to make this point in his programme, there was nothing didactic about his conducting. The performance of the complete Firebird ballet score that followed was memorable, not as a lesson in music history, but as an uniquely vibrant, atmospheric performance - a performance that told the story of Prince Ivan, the Firebird and the sinister, voluptuous Enchanted Garden so vividly that you never felt the absence of dancers, costumes or scenery. But story-telling wasn't everything. At times the sheer colour was mesmeric enough: the dark, very Russian low string tone in the opening figures, the magical washes of celeste, harp and piano sound, and the solo horn singing the folk-like tune in the final scene with a characteristically Slavic vibrato - good to hear that the trend towards globalisation of orchestra sound hasn't won quite yet.

It has been said before, but Valery Gergiev is clearly a force for good on the current international orchestral scene. Thanks to him the Russian repertoire is very much alive, and was here presented with conviction and national pride in the best sense. Who else would have attempted a programme like this, and brought it off with such intelligence and elan?

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