Russian soul

Classical byDermot Clinch

The Kirov Opera of St Petersburg recently visited Britain and brought the usual Russian operatic things: murder by mushrooms and rat poison, suicide by self- propulsion into icy Siberian water, self-destruction begot of monomaniacal gambling. They also brought two operatic masterpieces and performances which will not be excelled, in London at least, for some years.

Valery Gergiev conducted. He is an energetic man. The last time he performed in London - three weeks ago - he was conducting a British orchestra, the Philharmonia, in music by Berlioz at a festival he masterminded on the South Bank. He conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. He conducts at the Metropolitan in New York. He is principal conductor of the Philharmonic in Rotterdam. He has restored the Kirov - an 18th-century institution, once the Russian Imperial Opera Orchestra but fallen out of sight - to the international limelight. Why does Gergiev sport his famous stubble? Because he has no time to shave.

Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk, Shostakovich's opera, offered stupendous trilling tubas, some of the loudest bangs any of us have heard in the concert hall and an opportunity to hear one of the most famous, least played and most tragically consequential operas of the century. Stalin heard part of Lady Macbeth in January 1936. He left after the third act, during which he saw a police force - a provincial force of the 1860s - subjected to merciless satire on account of its brutality and corruption: satire which in terms of the opera's plot is entirely gratuitous. Two days later Pravda published an article entitled "Muddle instead of music". Shostakovich found himself deserted by friends and living in fear for his life.

The opera's history can only have added to the commitment of the Kirov's performance, though in retrospect it seems a wonder Stalin stayed so long. The manic stashing of corpses in cellars, the strangulation of husbands with lovers' belts and the post-coital trombone slides - vivid musical detumescence - are more than any dictator might be expected to bear. Whether the opera is more than a flamboyant, emotionally self-denying satire - whether it is in fact one of the composer's profound masterpieces - is always open to question. Gergiev convinced one that it is.

The work broadens in its final act; the parodies of Tchaikovskian waltzes, the contrabassoon farts, the piccolo sneezes, the knife-edge between pathos and laughter are suddenly forgotten in a river of endless Soviet suffering. "The road to Siberia is long and strewn with the bones of the dead . . . We trudge on endlessly, dragging our chains behind us." What would the Pravda article have been headlined if Stalin had stayed till the end?

Lady Macbeth was on Monday. Tuesday saw Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, after the novella by Pushkin, and the pressure of revelation from all sides had become too great to handle. The name Vladimir Galuzin is not well known in western Europe. Two performances, in the leading roles of two utterly distinct operas, demonstrated a tenor - witty, sensitive, mercurial, powerful - who is among the most naturally impressive singing today. Galuzin joined the Kirov in 1990, the same year as the company's star soprano, Galina Gorchakova. They happened to attend the same conservatory in Siberia.

Tchaikovsky's penultimate opera sounded in this performance as dark, as tragic as his last symphony, the Pathetique. The orchestra was rasping in the brass, oak-aged but not smooth-edged in the strings and once again fantastically loud. So Gergiev would begin a piece fortissimo and end it twice that if only he were allowed? He would not. When Gergiev shatters, he shatters in context. The balance, pacing, dramatic shape - simple things, often ignored - are unfailing. After performances like these, analysis and criticism seem blunter than ever.

Valery Gergiev's recording of "Pique Dame" ("Queen of Spades") with the Kirov Opera and Orchestra is released by Philips Classical

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job