Rotterdam Prokofiev Festival


Sviatoslav Prokofiev and Harlow Robinson.

During the course of the Festival, all of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies and nearly all of his piano works were performed. (In general, the Festival progressed chronologically, with each day receiving a thematic title, such as “A New Simplicity”, “The Journey Home”, etc..) The participating pianists included Alexander Mogilevsky, Freddy Kempf, Richard Flemming, François-Frédéric Guy, Igor Roma and Frederic Chiu. Mr. Chiu, an American who spent many years in Paris, conveys a special affinity for Prokofiev’s pianistic style, and has recorded the complete piano music for Harmonia Mundi. Particularly satisfying in Rotterdam was his performance of his own transcription of several movements of the Lieutenant Kije Suite, which combine humour and robust melodic feeling in just the right measure. Freddy Kempf also excelled in his delicate, pungent and understated performance of Sarcasmes and Visions fugitives. That same evening (5 September), young Italian pianist Gianluca Cascioli turned in a witty and winning interpretation of the Fifth Piano Concerto (with Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra), and made us all wonder why this innovative, effervescent work is heard so rarely. Throughout the Festival, Prokofiev’s own performances of his piano music (and his performances of music of other composers, including his own transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade), were also heard, thanks to Denis Hall and Rex Lawson. They have collected and restored the Duo-Art reproducing piano rolls Prokofiev made around 1920, and were on hand to present them. A grand piano playing the piano rolls was set up in the lobby, so concert-goers strolling about at intermissions had the eerie sensation that Sergei Sergeevich (or at least his ghost) had come to the party too.
     Despite his traditionally heavy commitments elsewhere, which included dealing at the last minute with the aftermath of a terrible fire at the Mariinsky Theatre’s costume and scenery warehouse in St. Petersburg, Maestro Gergiev was very present both physically and spiritually throughout the Festival, and conducted all but one of the orchestral concerts. The two orchestras, both well rehearsed and well prepared, have different strengths and weaknesses: the Rotterdam Philharmonic creates a rich, homogenous sound that worked especially well for more lyrical scores like Romeo and Juliet (6 September), while the Mariinsky Orchestra tends to play with somewhat greater passion and a bit less refinement. Both orchestras are clearly fond of Maestro Gergiev and respond more than willingly to his charismatic direction. A good balance was struck between the more familiar repertoire (Scythian Suite, Second Violin Concerto) and less familiar works (suites from Le Pas d’acier and On the Dnieper, The Year 1941 and Festive Poem Thirty Years). Among the most artistically satisfying performances were the Mariinsky Orchestra’s raw and vivid Third Symphony (5 September); the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s suave Second Violin Concerto with athletic and wildly popular Dutch virtuoso Janine Jansen (9 September); and the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s epic and disciplined Fifth Symphony (12 September).
     All of the performances featuring the vocal soloists and chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre proved particularly memorable. On 10 September, we heard Semyon Kotko in a stirring and assured performance – the Mariinsky company had only recently performed the opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so the music was already at their fingertips and in their throats. Vasily Gorshkov took the demanding leading role of the Ukrainian peasant and partisan Semyon, and Tatiana Pavlovskaya made the most of the radiant and lyrical music of his sweetheart Sofia. One could not have wished, in fact, for a more convincing case to be made for this opera, but alas, the glaring dramatic weaknesses of the libretto were still evident, particularly in the concluding act.
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