The Gergiev Phenomonon

Valery Gergiev, born in Moscow in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, is one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. He is currently the Director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg (home to the Kirov Opera and Ballet), Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. He is equally at home in the operatic and orchestral repertoire.

He has taken his Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater on tour around the world, including to New York, the Salzburg Festival, and venues in between. He is sovereign in the Russian repertoire. Those who heard him conduct Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Met will not soon forget his mastery of that sprawling score. His Kirov Opera has been an incubator for excellent Russian singers who have gone on to have international careers, such as Anna Netrebko, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Olga Borodina, and many others.

For several years he brought the Kirov Opera on tour to Washington’s Kennedy Center, where he presented the staples of the Russian repertoire and several operas by Verdi, with whose works he is associated, among others. In particular I recall a memorable Boris Godunov on a snowy night in Washington, but particularly compelling was a concert performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by his countryman Dmitri Shostakovich that blazed with intensity. On the flip side of the coin, his reading of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims was a dull, leaden affair, with none of the life and sparkle associated with Rossini.

The Kirov has released a number of his recordings on its house label, Mariinsky Records, including a highly acclaimed recent release of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring Natalie Dessay, and a just released recording of Massenets’ Don Quichotte, with Ferruccio Furlanetto. Gergiev had not previously been associated with either work, but both readings bear his unique stamp.

Gergiev maintains such a punishing international schedule that sometimes his performances betray incomplete preparation. I recall an indifferent run-through of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony in Salzburg that was followed by a compelling performance of Moussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death with Yevgeny Nikitin. Gergiev was thoroughly involved, and it showed. Gergiev’s style is to linger over passages he especially admires, but he has a way of generating tremendous momentum to close acts and symphonic movements. Some listeners find his conducting ponderous and erratic, but I think his performances can be among the most dramatic of any conductor’s, particularly when he is conducting his own orchestra, which he rules absolutely.

Gergiev and James Levine are unique among today’s star globetrotting conductors in that they have chosen to remain with and build a single company and its orchestra. As a result the Met Orchestra and the Kirov Orchestra are among the best orchestras in the world in their chosen repertoire. Both Levine and Gergiev love and admire the music of Richard Wagner, and Gergiev’s recent recording of Parsifal with Gary Lehman, Violetta Urmana, and Rene Pape will provide fuel for both Gergiev’s detractors and admirers. I find that the performance has an inner passion that is compelling in its intensity, plus the recording quality is first-rate. Alas, Lehman does not bear comparison with Placido Domingo, the best Parsifal I have heard on the stage.

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