Mariinsky/CBSO/Gergiev | Classical review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

For the Birmingham leg of their British tour, Valery Gergiev and his company joined forces with the City of Birmingham Symphony and its chorus in two of the most massive works in the choral repertory, one regularly heard, the other a genuine rarity.

The Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution was one of the works Prokofiev composed to curry favour with the Soviet authorities when he returned home in 1937. It ticked all the right political boxes – two movements of the 45-minute work set speeches by Stalin, while the other eight quote regularly from Marx and Lenin – but was nevertheless proscribed and never performed in the composer's lifetime. It has only been heard rarely since, because of the massive forces required – two choirs and a huge orchestra, reinforced with an extra brass ensemble, sound effects of gunshots and marching men, and a sextet of accordions. The music is effectively bombastic but thin, yet it's the sort of challenge Gergiev enjoys, and he marshalled its excesses so magnificently, that one almost believed it could be a piece worth cherishing.

Alongside it, even Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts, with brass bands arrayed around the auditorium, seemed a model of economy; monumental certainly, but never showily extravagant. It demands a different kind of approach, too, and perhaps because of the hybrid choir and orchestra – the solo tenor, Sergei Semishkur, is a Mariinsky regular – never quite achieved the sense of inevitability and collective mourning the finest performances generate. There were quite a lot of ragged entries – but then Gergiev's beat seems to be getting more eccentric – and, though it had a sort of craggy grandeur, those who bought a copy of the CD of the performance that was made on the spot might find it doesn't bear repeated listening.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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