Valery Gergiev is good for classical music. Every art form needs it’s worthwhile, charismatic stars, and Gergiev is such a star because of his talent and incredible hard work as a conductor. It may be easy to mock his schedule that has him almost constantly on the move, but that same schedule means that he brings music to people all over the globe.
As a star, his flaws and strengths go hand in hand. At his lowest moments, his music-making can be indifferent, even confused, while at his best he produces concert performances that are incandescent and overwhelmingly exciting. He is always interesting, always adding some fresh perspective or approach. Since the death of Georg Solti, there have been great conductors but no real star, the kind of figure you must pay attention to, even when they are not doing their best work. Gergiev is such a star.
And maybe the best thing about being a star, and a good thing for classical music, is that he gets things done. In a time when major orchestras like the New York Philharmonic no longer have recording contracts, Gergiev has taken full advantage of the ‘private label’ approach pioneered by the London and San Francisco Symphonies, putting out a rapidly expanding number of releases with his two main groups, the LSO and the forces of the Mariinsky Theater. He’s completed a live Mahler cycle in London, working his way through the Shostakovich Symphonies in Leningrad and has been expanding his operatic repertoire, already based on a vital foundation of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov. To this he added a fine and fresh reading of Parsifal, and now comes this foray into bel canto.
This is a very fine recording that is certain to leave many people displeased. This repertoire has been made cultish by devotees of the diva system, especially those entranced by Callas’ classic performances. Those are essential opera documents, but they are not the only way to do this music. Natalie Dessay is the foremost contemporary Lucia, and it is refreshing to just hear her sing the part rather than fight through the distractions of her acting the part, which ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Her Lucia is humane and intimate, the madness comes through in focus and musical expression, and reflects a conversational approach that Gergiev takes throughout – regardless of how on reacts to his interpretive ideas, he is consistently an exceptional accompanist to singers – and that balances the beauty of the vocal and instrumental lines with clear articulation and a very human scale expression: bel canto, in other words. The singers, including the excellent Vladislav Sulimsky and Piotr Beczala, are singing into our ears, not over our heads. This is the advantage of a studio recording, of course, but takes savvy artists to understand and exploit that (Rene Jacobs is another conductor who makes great use of what the recording studio gives him).
The result is a recording that may be too smooth or subdued for some tastes, but one that I find lovely and lyrical. For an outsized figure, Gergiev has a quiet and subtle way with music, an interest in the details of the soul rather than the grand gesture – and of course, add up enough details and the gesture becomes enormous. I welcome this approach in general for the ‘classics’ of classical music. The Mariinsky ensemble is really his working band, and he has turned them into an orchestra that is a pleasure to listen to, with a supple, involving sound with a pleasing touch of dark colors. They are flattered by the superb, natural Super Audio recording. Donizetti’s style seems to be intuitively natural to the conductor, and the subtle appeal of this document has grown with each listen. Fine, and pleasing, with hints that, given enough time and perspective, this may turn into a memorable Lucia.