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Fiery Conduct

Conductor Valery Gergiev inspires passion in musicians and audiences alike.

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Whenever Valery Gergiev comes to town, speculation mounts and rumors fly. Can this demon conductor possibly be pried away from his beloved Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg and tied permanently to New York? He is already principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, where he oversees a revival of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina next month, and the Met would obviously like to see even more of him. Right now, Gergiev is winding up a two-week stint with the New York Philharmonic, which is actively searching for a successor to Kurt Masur, and the Russian conductor is loudly whispered to be a leading candidate. While the Philharmonic might prefer a music director with broader musical interests -- to date, Gergiev has seldom strayed from his Russian specialties -- no international podium personality in sight has a comparable mystique or ability to connect with audiences. Neither Masur nor James Levine, for all their gifts, seems to be able to generate much personal charisma, and the city clearly yearns for a resident maestro who exudes a bit of glamour and flair as well as musical genius.

Gergiev's first program with the Philharmonic provided all of those good things. The concert may have added little new information to the conductor's résumé, but it did find him once again reveling in his element: Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges suite and Piano Concerto No. 1, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 and Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings. All this music is eager to please, never shy in making a bid for attention or titillating the ear -- even the leisurely first movement of the Shostakovich symphony seems more intent on luxuriating in instrumental color and clever formal strategies than building a crushingly tragic statement. With Yefim Bronfman as the fire-eating piano soloist, Gergiev served up an appetizing program with relish, and the Philharmonic played it brilliantly.

One of the few ranking conductors to still record regularly for a major label, Gergiev re-enters New York accompanied by a batch of new releases from Philips, most prominently Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov with his Kirov forces (462 230-2). This is a special set featuring two complete performances of the opera, one using the original 1869 score and the other the more familiar, greatly expanded version that the composer prepared in 1872. Not only does the earlier edition contain much different music -- the entire scene in the czar's apartments, culminating in Boris's hallucination of the murdered czarevitch, was virtually recomposed three years later -- but the narrower focus permits Boris to dominate the action, even when he is not physically present.

This more intimate conception will never replace the magnificent full-scale epic that eventually developed from it. As a compact psychodrama, though, it still packs quite a punch, and in any case it is valuable to hear the two versions back to back. Both Borises -- baritone Nikolai Putilin and bass Vladimir Vaneev -- cannily adjust their voices to reflect the differing vocal and dramatic perspectives, while registering two vividly contrasted but valid approaches to the role. The notes say nothing about the orchestration, which to my ears sounds like Shostakovich's 1940 instrumentation rather than Mussorgsky's rougher original. No matter. Gergiev conducts the entire project with the missionary zeal of a true believer, and the results are compelling.


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