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Music Review : Kirov: From Russia With Brilliance : The concert focus was on the dissolution of romanticism in early 20th-Century Russia. The performances were impeccable.

October 11, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

A miracle happened at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sunday night. A Russian orchestra came to town and didn't play Tchaikovsky. Nary a slurp.

This, to be sure, was no ordinary, garden-variety Russian orchestra. This was the elite orchestra of the Kirov Theater--a.k.a. Maryinsky--in sophisticated St. Petersburg. This was the historic, erstwhile imperial ensemble refined and polished in modern times by the great Yevgeny Mravinsky and his successor Yuri Temirkanov.

The maestro on duty here was Valery Gergiev, internationally oriented artistic director at the Kirov since 1988 and a frequent guest on Western podia. He made a most auspicious Los Angeles debut in 1992 conducting our Philharmonic in a Russian program and will return for two weeks in May. Last year, he was given Verdi's "Otello" as an unorthodox introductory vehicle at the Metropolitan Opera, where he earned invariable approval for its heroic vitality and reservations from at least one observer (this one) for his unflaggingly nervous energy.

The symphonic agenda on Sunday bore a striking, probably coincidental resemblance to the program chosen by Esa-Pekka Salonen to open the Los Angeles Philharmonic season three days earlier. Stylistic cliches and easy effects were steadfastly avoided. The focus was on the dissolution of romanticism in the early decades of 20th-Century Russia.

Gergiev began (after a leisurely entrance procession by his players) with the theatrical opulence of Rimsky-Korsakov's seldom-performed "Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh" (1905), ended with the brazen exotica of Stravinsky's "Firebird" (1910) and used the muted bravura of Prokofiev's D-major Violin Concerto (1917) as subtle centerpiece. The performances, in all three cases, were brilliant.

The Kirov orchestra is a perfectly balanced, impeccably blended virtuoso instrument, and Gergiev plays it with masterly elan. The strings can shimmer without losing warmth, focus or intensity. The brass can blast without blaring. The winds, agreeably nasal in timbre, savor the impact of the tender caress.

Gergiev retains the seating plan apparently customary in Russia: violins at his left, violas at his right, cellos in the middle, brass at the top. The sonic configuration, at first a bit disorienting to foreign eyes and ears, creates uncommon vibrancy while it supports textural cohesion.

The maestro obviously knows his orchestra, and it obviously knows him. He doesn't have to concern himself much with such basics as beating time and offering cues. He doesn't even use a baton. Like his colleague Temirkanov, he prefers to concentrate on illustrative matters--sculpting phrases in the air, flashing emotional signals, miming moods and, for reasons not quite clear to the uninitiated, constantly fluttering his fingers.

It looks fussy. But it works.

In his hands, the "Kitezh" excerpts throbbed with reflective mystery, crashed with precision violence and evaporated in climactic serenity. The poignancy was exquisite.

With Viktor Tretyakov as extraordinarily sensitive, properly intimate soloist, the Prokofiev concerto offered object lessons in the projection and sustenance of feverish delicacy. It will be interesting, and perhaps instructive, to hear how the same challenge sounds next week when it is ventured by Julian Rachlin (replacing Midori), Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic.

After intermission (and another leisurely entrance procession for the players), Gergiev threatened to give us too much of a good thing. In Stravinsky's "Firebird"--the whole, theatrically extended score, not the more reasonable suite--the maestro dotted every musical i and crossed every t. Five times.

The pervasive attention to minutiae proved refreshing at the outset. The distinction between a pianissimo and a pianississimo was tellingly observed. The tone painting was carefully dazzling. The lyrical passages emerged incredibly ethereal, and the dramatic outbursts threatened cataclysm. Slow passages moved very slowly indeed, and fast ones flashed like lightning.

This was terrific music-making, no doubt about it. After a while, however, everything seemed a bit exaggerated, a bit self-conscious and more than a bit precious. Gergiev and his followers had taken Stravinsky's taut little ballet and turned it into a massive, swollen music-drama.

The approach certainly was interesting. The audience loved it. Nevertheless, the interpretation flirted with distortion if not perversion.

There were encores aplenty. Tretyakov repeated the scherzo of the Prokofiev concerto before intermission. At the end of the evening, Gergiev, ever generous, added the "Rakoczi" March from Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust" and Liadov's "Baba Yaga."

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