Valery Gergiev plus Stravinsky's
Rite of Spring
plus the Kirov Orchestra might normally add up to only one thing: A musical bloodbath. Much to the credit of all three parties concerned, that wasn't what unfolded at Friday's Kirov Orchestra tour stop at the Kimmel Center. Stravinsky can do more than roar, and the performers now seem incapable of the kind of business-as-usual predictability this fairly standard program seemed to promise.
About 15 years ago, when Gergiev and the orchestra began visiting the West, their poor-quality instruments yielded dullish tone, and the conductor could be dismissed as a fast-and-loud talent supported by an usually strong power base in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Now, the orchestra's tone is rich. And Gergiev has grown into a fascinating personality whose mercurial qualities are the wellspring of an endlessly inventive, re-creative approach toward classical performance that deserves emulation. A Webcast of Gergiev's Mahler Symphony No. 5 over the summer had jaw-dropping originality. Could anything like that happen with Friday's Stravinsky warhorses?
The Firebird was presented not in its usual suite, but in the full ballet score. That's not necessarily a good idea: What's left out of the suite often addresses narrative elements that make the most sense when dancers are on the stage. However, listener interest couldn't help being sustained through the more musically sparse passages by Gergiev's skillful exploitation of the piece's 3-D descriptive qualities - heard in conjunction with countermelodies, thematic cross references, and an unusually clear presentation of the simultaneous musical events that knit the score together.
How one perceived Gergiev's Rite of Spring approach depends on your recent encounters with the piece: My recent point of reference is savage; in comparison, Friday's performance seemed almost offhanded with the seismic orchestral effects. I was more aware of metric changes and other points of organic logic; though this composer made his name on unrelieved dissonance, he evolved into a refined neoclassicist. Tempos were fast and fleet. Rhythms didn't pound, but bounced.
This is one case when native Russian authority perhaps translates into downplayed mystery and terror. Non-Russians hear an ultra-exotic ballet about pagan sacrifice in ancient Russia. But Russians who grew up with the folk tunes employed in the piece - right down to the opening bassoon solo - may hear something like Copland's folksy Appalachian Spring with some unruly cowboys and Indians. What emerged, then, was a greater sense of Stravinsky's amazing power of construction - especially in the first half, less so in the thematically weaker second half. But I'll gladly take it over the usual Stravinsky bludgeoning. Did we ever foresee Kirov & Co. as a possible refuge from that?