Debussy

The Week in Concerts, Day 4

Final day, and a real indulgence for me – the Vienna Philharmonic led by Valery Gergiev in music form Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette, the Prelude und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and La Mer.

What can I say? It was glorious in all the expected ways, and in some unexpected ways too. That Vienna sound is something to behold in person, the musicians wonderfully organized around pulse and phrasing rather than a strict beat, and the strings at the front of everything. And the them so warm, creating sound out of slight differences in intonation. The orchestra is like a jazz group in this way, pushing the boundaries of intonation and the beat, but never breaking them.

The Berlioz was great, tremendously energetic. The Wagner was not promising at first; Gergiev took long pauses between each of the opening phrases which let tension escape from the unstable harmonies – the pauses allowed the ear to settle into some equilibrium, rather than hunger for some offering of stability from the musicians. But then he built the music to a peak of tremendous, spine-tingling intensity beyond anything I’ve heard, even the feverish Kleiber recording.

FInally, La Mer. I was expecting a comforting, satisfying and routine performance, but Gergiev had a lot to say. Rather then open up the orchestration, he indulged in the warm blend of the orchestra and let Debussy’s instrumentation speak for itself, which it did brightly. And he allowed the sections of the orchestra to play at tempos a little off from their colleagues, which had the powerful effect of painting the music, the rocks and the waves and the air and the water into a very real picture. I’ve heard this piece in concert more than any other over the past 20 years, and this was something that stood out from the standard, as high as that is.

Now, I’ll take a little break.