Excellence marks Kirov at Kennedy

September 26, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Music lovers in the West have been hearing a good deal about the great things taking place at St. Petersburg's Kirov Orchestra under its music director, Valery Gergiev. To judge from the all-Russian program that Gergiev and the Kirov gave yesterday at the Kennedy Center, it's all true.

This was an perhaps an even better concert than the one that conductor Mariss Jansons and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic gave at the Kennedy Center last year. This is not said to compare unfavorably one splendid Russian-trained conductor with another. But merely to say that Gergiev is an extraordinary orchestra builder. When he took over the Kirov Orchestra almost seven years ago, it had fallen upon hard times. It now sounds even better than its somewhat more famous St. Petersburg rival. Unlike the Philharmonic, the Kirov has no discernible weaknesses. It boasts a solid, polished-to-a-sheen string section and wind playing on the highest international level. And it possesses the excellences that distinguish the Philharmonic: a superb sense of ensemble, a sense of spirit and -- above all -- a sound that is identifiably Russian.

The three excerpts from Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina," which opened the program, could not have been performed better. The way in which conductor and orchestra evoked dawn over the Moscow River was magical; the playing was beautiful and the climax -- reached without a hint of strain -- was magical.

Stravinsky's complete "Firebird" music was equally lovely. This was an interpretation that was at once disciplined and full of fantasy. Gergiev captured the element of grotesquerie that was to flower more fully in the "Rite of Spring," and he was just as evocative in capturing the score's Rimsky-Korsakovian elements -- the pianissimos were of breathtaking delicacy. Best of all was the conductor's grasp of the piece's architecture: When the great climax, with its heartbreaking yearning and lyricism, finally arrived, it was with a sense of majestic destination.

The best of the program may have been Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5, which featured soloist Alexander Toradze. This is a strange piece in which one has always sensed a potential for drama and lyricism that no pianist -- with the possible exception of Sviatoslav Richter -- has been able to unlock. Toradze has found the key. This was a performance that blazed with power and excitement.But it was a performance remarkable not merely for its brilliantly lit effects, but also for the fantasy and heartfelt sentiment this imaginative pianist was able to uncover in this supposedly age-of-steel concerto.

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