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Sunday, May 28, 2000

Gergiev faultily great with the Rotterdam Phil


Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

April 12, Valery Gergiev conducting in Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo -- Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827); Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 (Sergey Sergeyvich Prokofiev, 1891-1953)

The 400 years of relations with the Netherlands are historically Japan's longest connection with the Western world. In celebration thereof, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Valery Gergiev made a nine-concert tour here last month.

The 108-member orchestra is now in its 82nd year. Gergiev was appointed its principal conductor five years ago, in 1995. It seems amazing that he accepted this appointment, since he is one of the world's busiest conductors. As chief conductor and general manager he reigns absolute over St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater, which he has single-handedly made a household name with international tours and prized recordings. He regularly guest-conducts the greatest orchestras in the world. Then, two years ago, he was further appointed principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Everybody's after him, and no wonder. He makes the music a dramatic experience. The RPO players enjoy working with him, and their pleasure and commitment showed in their playing.

Gergiev probably would be the first to tell you that his technique is not perfectly honed and polished. His batonless gestique and the occasionally overextended arc of his swing can leave the ensemble underdefined, even with such experienced players as these. This matters less than music that sounds like music though, and audiences everywhere know where their priorities lie.

Beethoven's music is the bedrock of symphonic composition. It is so solidly constructed that it withstands many different approaches without losing its integrity.

In Beethoven's own time, the sonority of the orchestra was distinctly lighter than today. The wind instruments were of smaller bore and the strings were fewer in number. The lighter sound made for lighter tempos -- tempos, incidentally, which have recently come to be revisited in performances by special, period orchestras.

Gergiev may be Russian and the orchestra Dutch, but their performance of Beethoven's crackling fifth symphony was turgidly German, sonorous and stately. It is one approach. With a string section of 64, it needed to be spacious in tempo; it also needed the help of a baton for precise ensemble coordination.

When taking the sonorous approach, many conductors choose to double the woodwind instruments, and sometimes the horns as well. Gergiev chose not to, but perhaps he should have. The woodwinds sounded fine in soft passages; otherwise, the tone was swallowed up in the mass of orchestra forte.

Beethoven's unerring sense of counterpoint yields many delightful felicities in the interplay of inner voices against the melody, and the bass line against both (contrabass parts during this period could be as demanding as violin parts). The punchy, melody-driven approach to the finale obliterated the florid bass line, rendering it merely incidental.

Granted, Gergiev's interpretation was intense. For me, though, the hefty-ponderous approach didn't really penetrate to the heart of Beethoven.

Gergiev's heritage, training and temperament are a deep reservoir of stylistic authenticity that charge the Russian works he conducts with conviction, commitment and energy. The pairing of Beethoven with Prokofiev was not intended to suggest a "before and after" contrast, but the Prokofiev did what the Beethoven did not. It was as expressive, precise and richly characterized as anyone could wish.

Now the large orchestra made sense. There was lots of fortissimo, but the balance was well proportioned, the ensemble work was excellent, and there was a sense of musical character, not musical process. The same wild man was still on the podium, but he breathed this music through and made it sing.

No longer aware of the tempos as such, I felt only the wonderful, spirited style of the first movement, the lightly sarcastic, infectious fun of the second, the irresistible momentum of the finale, the transitions made so compelling that the carefully determined relationships seemed artless, natural, inevitable.

It was relaxed; it was exciting; it wasn't perfect; it was great music. A contradiction? If it isn't perfect, how can it be great music?

Machinelike perfection makes for good engineering. In precision engineering it is essential. Still, an engineer would speak about tolerances, allowances within a certain range, and he too would tell you there is no such thing as absolute perfection. In human endeavors, perfection must be considered a relative term.

In art and music, moreover, technical accuracy, even to a high degree of tolerance, does not equal expressiveness. The notes might be dead on, and yet dry as dust. We consider expression to be more, not less, essential to art than mere technique.

Gergiev has that rare ability to make the music he really identifies with come to life, and his sense of characterization makes it compelling. When we are riveted by such glorious music making, the minor annoyance of a stray note or a less-than-impeccable entrance is well within our tolerances.

One way to adjudge a conductor's quality is to note the enthusiasm of the musicians in the orchestra when they finish a piece. If you see smiles all around, you know that he is giving them the most essential quality of the artistic experience, and it's not mere technique.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic was smiling.

E-mail Robert Ryker at ryker@gol.com

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