Vakhtang Machavariani concert, Tbilisi Music Centre, 30 October
By Rumwold Leigh
Tuesday, November 3
Music may cross political boundaries, but it is still significant when a Georgian composer tops the bill ahead of famous Russian composers. Even more so when this positioning is entirely justified, and causes Received Wisdom to stop and think.
On 30 October internationally famous Georgian conductor Vakhtang Machavariani gave a concert of the work of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and his father Aleksi Machavariani at Tbilisi Music Centre.
The evening began with Mussorgsky’s famous tone poem ‘Night on a Bare Mountain.’ This is familiar to many due to its dramatic opening brass theme, often used as incidental music in films, sports broadcasts etcetera. In this rendering this was finely controlled, tonal appropriateness appearing to be one of Vakhtang Machavariani’s characteristics as a conductor. Another is that he seems to be interested in what the composer actually meant, rather than what other people are supposed to infer from it, something always particularly noticeable in the way people render Russian music. Many Western conductors expect their orchestras to drown Russian music in tortuous sweeps and groans, as if written by a loquacious drunk going berserk in a bar. This completely misses the subcutaneous fatalism at the heart of all Russian music, extracted simply by playing the notes. To this extent Night on a Bare Mountain does not sound very Russian, but Vakhtang Machavariani and his highly proficient orchestra were able to convey the fact that it is not only universal but very much a piece of 1886, when Russian aristocrats were busy showing how modern they were by developing an interest in spirits and ghoulies inherent in many Western countries long before.
The second piece was Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, for which the soloist was the very dapper Vakhtang Zhordania. This was premiered by Prokofiev himself in Chicago in 1921, and you can tell, because it is the work of someone with plenty to say. It is not a piece for the fainthearted, urgent semiquavers declaiming everything under the sun while the orchestra obediently keeps up, and gives the impression of someone making a highly serious dissertation, with great passion, in a Russian folk idiom – a peasant explaining nuclear physics, if you will. In the first movement the peasant suddenly realises where his argument is leading him and is engulfed by the inevitability of his conclusion, leading him in the second movement to lament the fact that he was right, and now realises it. Here the orchestra intrudes more, as if saying “we could have told you that.” The pianist reaffirms that he is not really qualified to speak on his subject, but his argument has all the more force for that reason. In the third movement the soliloquy is set in context by the insistent strings and sirens of the post World War One hustle and bustle, when everything moves at great speed because different philosophies are competing to replace the old assumptions. This, also, is where the argument led, but at the same time makes the argument increasingly difficult to hear. In Georgia, which is going through a similar period now, this piece is very relevant, and Machavariani and Zhordania demonstrated that relevance with a rendering which could engage everyone’s concerns on one level or other.
It was a risk devoting the second half of the programme to Aleksi Machavariani’s music for the ballet ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, particularly as it was the world premiere of this piece. It is a substantial work, certainly not incidental music, and in a way it was unfortunate that this was the premiere, as it will repay considerable future study. It grabs the audience from the first however, and in an unusual way. The first bars declare “Watch out, watch out, there’s a shrew about”, and you never know how seriously to take what is being said throughout. It is very difficult to maintain such a tone for any length of time without being misunderstood, but this music and this performance pulled this off, in an excellent rendering of the light comedy of Shakespeare’s play. Within a short while you know that this is going to be the highlight of the show. The orchestration is flawless and very satisfying for the performers, who each have a considerable part and plenty to say, the music darting around from one section to another like a gymnast flinging himself about on the rings. The deeply suggestive tempo, the musical equivalent of rapidly raising eyebrows, is maintained even in the more solemn parts, when the consequences of all the jollity are reflected on, but nothing gets in the way of the fundamental triumph of fun when the shrew is tamed, but into a wiser shrew, at the end.
Like all bloodthirsty reviewers you wait for the misplaced effect, mistiming, failure of expression, wrong choice or misplaced note in this piece. In this music, and this performance of it, this reviewer waited in vain. The piece is brilliant, like the way it was played, but it has far greater substance than a work which has brilliance alone. When you write reviews people tell you not to be too positive or negative because people will think it is a put up job. If this newspaper wants to sack me for telling the truth, let it.
If Russia wants to start another war and Georgia can choose its weapon, it should choose the music of Aleksi Machavariani. If such a war could be fought, not only the occupied territories but the whole of Russia would be in Georgian hands by the end of the week. After the concert it became known that the Metropolitan Opera House in New York might be interested in performing this work. If this happens, Georgia will have more friends than it can count among the musical fraternity before long.