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LSO/Valeri Gergiev

Yuri Bashmet – viola

Shostakovich: “The Age of Gold” excerpts
Schnittke: Viola Concerto
Symphony No 6

Royal Albert Hall - Prom, 18 August 2006


A fully packed Prom audience saw the substantial figure of Valery Gergiev striding purposefully to the rostrum, clad in an unfamiliar frock coat. A brief nod to the audience and he plunged into the demanding Shostakovich suite based on tunes from his ballet The Golden Age , including the notorious “Tea for Two” foxtrot. The ballet was not a success when it first appeared in 1930 and a recent showing at the London Coliseum also failed to please the critics [but q.v. Bolshoi video which deserves release on DVD - Editor]. The conductor at its premiere, Alexander Gauk, commented “There was much superb music in The Golden Age and it is a real shame that everyone has swept it aside into the dust of oblivion.” The seven items each depict aspects of Soviet life in the twenties, treated in episodic fashion in the same way as for the cinema of the period. This light hearted introduction to an evening of Russian music was greatly appreciated by the audience, as an indication of a more relaxed aspect to this composer, usually associated with serious themes.


Yuri Bashmet, dedicatee of Schnittke's Viola Concerto, had also enjoyed a personal relationship with the composer. Schnittke, a “Volga German”, continued the tradition of Russian music established by Shostakovich, but was intent on introducing ancient elements into contemporary compositions. For him there was no division between classical music and its lighter forms; this concerto includes samples of polkas, can-can dances and military marches. Three movements are seamlessly joined together, giving the impression of being continuous; sequences are alternately flavoured with sweet and bitter overtones. The last movement recalls the funeral music of the Orthodox Church, ending with chimes heralding the approach of death before it declines into silence. Thunderous applause greeted the orchestra and soloist who had shown complete mastery of this complex score which scarcely allows the player any rest or relief from its intensity.


Gergiev seemed to find something in Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony,“the Pathetique”, which involved him personally and his absorption was complete, especially in the frantic triumphal brass chords of the third movement. Use of this adjective is misleading – its original meaning denoted to the expression of deep feelings, and perhaps this is the key to the understanding of this score. The composer was a man obsessed with the transience of all things and the terrifying prospect of eventual progress towards the grave. A typically Romantic attitude, made the more intriguing by the mysterious circumstances attached to his eventual demise. Reams of paper have been devoted to likely explanations for his sudden death but it seems likely to remain one of the great unsolved mysteries.


The restrained atmosphere of the Finale matched the similar end of Schnittke's concerto; both hushed in a reverential treatment fading away into nothingness, leaving the audience momentarily speechless. Gergiev can make even the most hackneyed items seem new and exciting and it is hoped that his new position with the LSO will provide even more scope for his exceptional and unique artistry.


S Jenkins