This was a sanctification of the city of St Petersburg itself and its role in shaping modern music. Hence the speeches on the broadcast, and the sincere emotion shown on the faces of the musicians of the Mariinsky Orchestra as they listened. A male wind player's lower lip wobbled. A harpist leaned her head on her instrument, to hide genuine tears. We don't often see hard-boiled professionals like that, but the sense of occasion must have been overwhelming.
Stravinsky's Funeral Song was written when Stravinsky heard the news of the death of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in June 1908. Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky's teacher, mentor and close friend: the sorrow Stravinsky must have felt was channelled into the piece, completed in a very short period, and premiered in January 1909. Akthough Stravinsky remebered it fondly, the manuscript was thought lost, until, by chance, renovations to the Mariiinsky's old building in 2014 revealed a cache of uncatalogued papers which included 83 orchestral parts used in the first (and only) performance. Read Stephen Walsh's account of the discovery here and listen to Natalya Braginskaya before th broadcast). The parts had lain, unnoticed through the Revolution, after which the city was renamed Leningrad, and subject to one of the most brutal sieges in modern history. Stravinsky's Funeral Song survived the Tsars, the Nazis and the collapse of Communism: Stravinsky's modernism wasn't popular with Stalin. By honouring Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov together in this way, Gergiev, the Mariinsky and the city of St Petersburg are making a powerful statement, Effectively, the concert was a huge tone poem, linking two operas with one ballet, which changed the course of music history.
Stravinsky's Funeral Song (Chante funèbre) begins with ominous dark chords. It's a slow march, the gloom lit with rustling strings and figures that seem to leap sharply upwards in protest against the gloom. A solo French horn outlines a melody. The full orchestra joins in, and the music rises almost to crescendo before falling back. Prostrate, but not defeated. The strings surge and a group of horns take up momentum. A hushed, mysterious near silence, bassoons, double basses, and full flow is restored. The timpani rumble, and strange lingering chords repeat. Intense anguish, then a very short return to peace, of a kind, with the harps and low winds murmuring.
Though Stravinsky's Funeral Song is short, it's very rich. Stravinsky's clearly thinking of Rimsky-Korsakov's great orchestral dramas. Thoughtfully, Gergiev preceded it with the Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya , which premiered in the Mariinsky in February 1907, with the same conductor who did the Funeral Song two years later . The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya is an astonishing piece, illuminated with intense colours and vivid imagery. It describes an idealized city in Old Russia, which, when attacked by the Tatars, is saved by a mystery fog which makes it invisible, though its bells, prancing horses and pipes can be heard, tantalizingly, in the distance above the lakes and forests. Do we hear Kitezh in the last, lingering chords of the Funeral Song? The piece is something of a Gergiev trademark, for he's championed it passionately for years. It was a sensational hit when he conducted it in London in 1994. You need the full work for maximum impact, but in this concert, the Suite worked fine, and the performance was intensely moving.
Think on the swirling, lustrous motifs that depict the magic fog that conceals the Invisible City. then think of Stravinsky's The Firebird, which premiered in Paris in June 1910. In The Firebird, Stravinsky quotes Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey the Immortal (1902) which premiered in St Petersburg in 1905. Indeed The Firebird incorporates two separate legends into one ballet with great effect. In Rimsky-Korsakov, Kashchey an ugly monster has a daughter who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold as he is but she falls in love. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight, on whom the plot pivots, is defined by the wild ostinato. The most inventive music, though, surrounds Kashchey's daughter Kashcheyvna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathize.
Stravinsky's Firebird inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal. The Firebird is a magical figure which materializes out of the air, leading the Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Yet again, the "characters" are defined by music. The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity.
Although Gergiev has conducted The Firebird so often he could almost do it on autopilot, on this occasion his focus was so intense that the performance was extraordinary. When Gergiev is this good, he's better than anyone else. Absolute finesse, the Mariinsky playing barely above the point of audibility, but with magical lustre, then exploding into the wild, demonic passages with the energy and precision of a corps de ballet. Mournful bassoons, exotic clarinets, celli and basses plucked pizzicato like a choir singing vocalise. Once again, we're in a magical dimension like the fog that lifted Kitezh beyond mortal ken. The "Firebird" theme returned, richer and deeper than before, but how does the piece end ? With strong, emphatic chords repeated again and again. Like in the Funeral Song, like The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. Presenting the three pieces together almost seamlessly, Gergiev revealed their connections, and the inner artistic logic that linked the two composers together. An outstanding experience. Enjoy and marvel : the concert is available on demand for a limited period on medici tv.