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Music review: Gergiev & Mariinsky play Tchaikovsky at Segerstrom

October 14, 2011 |  1:15 pm

Valery Gergiev
Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony begins with a solo horn playing eight bars of a folk song. Those eight bars are framed by a loud whole note, slowly getting quieter over four long beats.

Can the soul of a country be conveyed in four such beats?  Or course not.

The folk song is Ukrainian. Tchaikovsky was every inch a moody Russian, but he was also a cosmopolitan composer. The version of his symphony -- which has been nicknamed (not by him) the “Little Russian” -- was composed in Germany and modeled on Beethoven. And no one pays much mind, anyway, to Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies. There is an old saw that Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies: his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth.

Thursday night those “Little Russian” horn calls coated rather than filled the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, like an ancient varnish radiating from the walls. They summoned ghosts of a Russia longed for but long vanished.

This was the start of first of two programs of Tchaikovsky symphonies by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under its music director, Valery Gergiev. The Second and Fifth were performed Thursday, the Third and Fourth Symphonies will be on Monday. Gergiev and his itinerant orchestra dash off to Berkeley for a full Tchaikovsky symphony cycle over the weekend. Then on Tuesday they are at the Valley Performing Arts Center with a mixed Russian bill.

All that flitting about gives the Mariinsky the reputation for scrappiness. Five years ago, the orchestra, then called the Kirov, helped open Segerstrom with Shostakovich symphonies, giving somewhat, well, scrappy but very powerful performances. That was understandable given the full company simultaneously mounted a “Ring” Cycle and performances of “Boris Godunov” in the opera house across the way. Gergiev’s been back for Mahler with the Mariinsky –- somewhat, well, scrappy (including the opening horn) but passionate and penetrating.

Once the “Little Russian” horns created their spell, only an exorcism could have chased the composer’s poltergeist from the room. A solo bassoon took up the opening tune, and it was simultaneously grounded but not entirely of this world, an ur-Russian bassoon, the sound Stravinsky called up for “Rite of Spring.”

This was not scrappy playing. Perhaps that’s partly the result of Gergiev’s recent initiative to improve the quality of the orchestra’s instruments and the fact it plays in a new 1,200-seat hall in St. Petersburg with uncompromising acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota. But mainly it was the result of a “Little Russian” meant to be neither little nor light but of spiritual and sonic consequence.

One thing for which Gergiev’s long tenure at the Mariinsky will long be remembered is his advocacy for neglected Russian works -– underrated Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev operas are now back in the repertory thanks to him. I would expect that with his Mariinsky cycle, Tchaikovsky will, once more, be a six-symphony composer.

The Fifth, often treated as a depressive’s melancholic rage against the injustice of the world, needs no advocacy. It is popping up so often in Southern California that we are in danger of becoming Fifth-drunk. The horn again is featured, in a famously poignant melody in the slow movement, and the playing was dark and divine. There are waltz rhythms, but conductors more and more like to present Tchaikovsky as dancing through tears. A triumphant ending is often felt to have been hollow.

Gergiev’s reading was intense and magnificent. He didn’t seem to be interpreting Tchaikovsky so much as amplifying him, bringing every detail to the surface, giving it weight, exposing it. In 1998, Gergiev conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a gloriously played performance of the Fifth at the Salzburg Festival, which was recorded live. It was hailed as the best of both worlds, full of atmosphere and humanity but played by incomparable beauty.

In comparison to the soul-stirring power of the Mariinsky performance Thursday, that recording now, for all its wonders, sounds a little artificial. Thursday night a couple of thousand people were held in Tchaikovskian thrall. Nothing needed explanation. It was simply, by any criteria you chose, a great performance.

The Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” was the encore. Most of the time Gergiev didn’t conduct with his arms. He stood there and let the orchestra dance for him. It did. And with all the allure in the world.


Music review: Valery Gergiev conducts Mahler with the Mariinsky

Review: Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony in Costa Mesa

Tchaikovsky's Fifth, here there and everywhere

-- Mark Swed

Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Towne Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 8 p.m. Monday. $30 - $250. (949) 553-2422 or Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, 8 p.m., Tuesday. $25 - $70. (818) 677-3000 or

Photo: Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Thursday night. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times.