Gergiev conducts ‘like a zombie’

Gergiev conducts ‘like a zombie’


norman lebrecht

October 09, 2020

A brutal review in Munich’s Abendzeitung of a Gergiev Mozart performance:

… the absence of any form of musical dialogue and rhetorical shape was disturbing. Everything looked zombie-like, routine and maximally inanimate…. Gergiev treats Schubert, like Mozart, as a plaster bust… Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn would possibly agree quite quickly if they were consulted on an entry ban for the conductor as demanded by the Kremlin critic Alexej Navalny.



  • BP says:

    Well he conducted an astonishing, spine-tingling Khovanshchina on Sunday with a slightly pared-down Mariinsky, driven and compelling for the three hours plus of the performance. Truly generous and memorable. So you take the good with the bad.

    • sam says:

      Unfortunately, the “good” is second tier Russian masterpieces, and the “bad” is the core of the standard Austro-Germanic repertoire, and he’s conducting a German orchestra in a German city.

      It’s like going to the restaurant and the chef is good at soup, but bad at the appetitzers, the main course, the dessert.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        Quite right. His performances of the Austro-German repertory while in charge of the LSO were lamentable, including a Mahler cycle treated as an excuse for orchestral virtuosity and nothing else besides, but my goodness me, in the key Russian works he was unsurpassed and quite often spine-tingling.

      • karajanman says:

        What chauvinistic nonsense. There’s more to the repertoire than just the Anglo-German standards. So conductors can be great interpreters of Russian, Czech, French, Finnish, or British works (to name but a few) but if they can’t interpret another Beethoven Fifth to the the satisfaction of some up-his-own-backside critic, they’re failures. What a blinkered view of the vast expanse of classical music. By the way, how can works be “masterpieces” but “second tier”?

        • sam says:

          Like I said, the main course is Austrio-Germanic, the appetizers are Czech, the soup is Russian, the amuse-bouche is British, the sides are Finnish, and the dessert is French (naturellement).

          I’m very inclusive in my chauvinism.

          (Yes, even among masterpieces, there is a hierarchy. Beethoven’s 4th is not on the same tier as Beethoven’s 9th. Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is not on the same tier as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov.)

          • Anna says:

            I agree with you. Moreover, he has transferred this arrogant approach to his student Tugan Sokhiev (Bolshoi musical director and principal conductor). You can ask Google about his interview during The Tsar’s Bride” opera, Tugan Sokhiev. Lots of ridiculous things said about Ivan the Terrible as Apostle for pagan Russian people, and the importance of choir!! in this!! Rimsky-Korsakov opera. His (their) musicology professors should be very uncomfortable. These Ossetian “brothers” simply don’t want to even bother to pretend they respect the repertoire they don’t really like. That’s a bad quality. But any bad thing said about them will be brushed away as “racism” against the ethnic minority of North Ossetians. They are like Barack Obama here. Untouchable to their critics. Sorry, Europe. He’s a national treasure of post-Soviet Russia.

      • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

        My problem with Gergiev is not so much that he’s not equally strong across all repertoire (I mean come on, who is/was? Maybe Charles Mackerras but that’s it).

        It’s that his (admittedly mind-blowing, when he’s really ‘on’) good performances are so hugely outnumbered by the dreadful, and often frankly under-prepared. I think his entire approach is slapdash and, ultimately, disrespectful of paying punters. It’s just not good enough for a serious professional musician to leave so much to chance that someone buying a ticket has a four-in-five chance of getting a really poor performance.

      • BERIV says:

        Mussorgsky is second tier?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??

      • Alter Frager says:

        Khovanshchina….second tier? I object.

    • Ken says:

      What is a “generous” performance? Did he decline his fee?

    • Dutchie says:

      Maybe he should just cancel the bad and focus on the good?

    • Nik says:

      Maybe he needs to be on his home turf. I’ve never been there and wouldn’t know.
      But his Khovanshchina in Milan last year was serviceable at best and quite obviously under-prepared, with some of the large crowd scenes hopelessly out of whack. Admittedly this is challenging stuff and must be meticulously rehearsed.
      My introduction to the piece was with Abbado in Vienna, admittedly the gold standard. I will never forget what it *can* sound like.

  • Luca says:

    Gergiev at his best is one of our few great conductors. Who cares what a mere critic thinks?

  • Roman says:

    I didn’t have a privilege to see him conducting many times, but what I saw was superb. Sounds like a very biased review. I understand the frustration with his political stances – they disappoint me as well – but mixture of art and politics in art review upsets me even more.

    • Gustavo says:

      Well said.

      All this post-WWII and Cold-War prejudice entering the arts is rather worrying. It seems to be a real issue with the 70-plus guys who keep bringing this up.

    • Delani says:

      Agreed. And this increasing trend of pressuring artists to verbally express their political opinion is also upsetting.

  • Alexander says:

    You have already pinched Peter Gelb and Mr. Gergiev in the another round of your carrousel of provoking remarks . Apparently Riccardo Muti and the family ( his daughter etc) will be the next target 😉 … ohh, I forgot about Riccardo Chailly, monsieur Stephane Lissner and someone from Salzburg, Lucerne and Vienna 😉 … How about Covent Garden’s management then ? Everyone wants to be mentioned in the most popular music blog unless it is an obituary 😉

  • Gustavo says:

    In the tradition of The Screaming Skull.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Well, Gergiev IS a zombie. In appearance, demeanor, and musical talent.
    And he’s Putin’s shill.
    A disgusting man.

  • Freddynyc says:

    He also looks like one but why the need to insult the man……?

  • mary says:

    What is Gergiev’s sound or signature style anyway?

    Can one hear a recording or the radio and say, “ahh, that’s Gergiev”?

    Even his Russian performances, is there a distinct Gergiev “way” that is different from all other Russian conductors?

    I’m trying to figure out why he is so sought after.

    • Occasional Gergiev Fan says:

      Mary, absolutely. He has his very own string sound, always very recognizable, and the timbres of wind instruments are particularly individualized.
      His style of music-making in phrasing and narrative is also very distinctive.
      Also, some of his more recent performances of the austro-German repertoire are fantastic! Beethoven 3 was quite great. 5 and 6 were bad. The violin concerto was amazing. His current ongoing Mahler cycle in Munich is infinitely better than the one from his LSO years. Some of his Bruckner is also great. Mozart was admittedly never his strength. Schubert I have yet to hear.

    • John D. Goodwin says:

      His signature style? Why, the toothpick, of course.

    • A Bavarian wannabe says:

      His style? Hmm… let me think… no staccato, not together, thick sound? That’s all that seems to matter to him when he conducts us (I shall not mention where I work, wink wink, nudge nudge).

  • When Gergiev going in town you have to look at the program : Prokofiev Tchaikovsky it’s OK Mahler Mozart you can avoid. And concerning Mozart the journlists are very tough. It’s the same thing for the pianists Mozart is scary to play.

  • EstheticBeauty says:

    You are a victim of German propaganda. He is a master of Russian music. His understanding of German music can be different from yours, because of cultural differences. Russian conducting school is different from German. Do not forget that Russian people make an emphasis on Russian music in their education. To them Mozart, Schubert are abstract German guys. They know German like you know Russian, if you speak Herman.

  • Kraut says:

    Ironic that this criticism comes from Germany.
    Modernist Germany is well known for it ideological stance of preferring flashy mechanism, rather than individual insight.
    The modern Germans are stuck in “dogmatic good-and-rational” collective thinking, but keep telling themselves how open they are.

    They are Gergiev themselves, but fail to realize it. Hypocrites!

    • Will says:

      Yes agreed.

      “dogmatic good-and-rational” collective thinking of the worst type!

      Or as some fed-up Germans say: “Gutmenschen”, to describe those millions of spineless other Germans, who just follow whatever if currently dogmatically correct to follow, or certified by some paper or “expert”.

  • Ethan says:

    Link to the original?

  • Tom Phillips says:

    He certainly has no business conducting Mozart – or really anything other than Russian composers. He is increasingly a relic in any case – and mostly survives due to his Putin connection.

  • Manuela Bachmann says:

    A differentiated review for the same concert can be found at, see (in german language)

  • Nijinsky says:

    Given that the motive is to take care Putin isn’t elected, I seriously question whether barring Gergiev from traveling outside of Russia wouldn’t in reality actually give Putin more opportunity to call it discrimination from the West and gain support citing nationalism. For the same reason I question the economic sanctions. I myself think Gergiev is a musician not a politician, people can disagree with me as they like, no insult to them, but I think that beyond that barring him from traveling could go against the reason people would take such a stance.

    I’ve seen it how easily people cite sanction as making life more difficult for the people living in a country, rather than changing the government, and then also how easily those same people will change their view when it goes against who they feel they have to treat as an enemy as part of a government.

  • Nick says:

    Long overdue! Navalny is right!

  • John Nelson says:

    Sounds as if he’s run out of time for a proper rehearsal – again!!

  • Roy Jones says:

    Several times in the past past when listening to a piece eg Planets, Rite of Spring and I’ve thought what a poor version, or, that just had mistakes in, when it got to the end the presenter would say it was conducted by Gergiev.

  • Raphael says:

    I have heard Gergiev several times including on his home turf in St Petersburg. He has consistently disappointed. He plays often and with a varied repertoire but usually mediocre performances.

  • IP says:

    I saw Herbert Blomstedt conduct two symphonies and an overture at 92, no score, clearly beating time in a way such that any lapse of memory would show. How many bars can vanish between two shakes of the St Vitus dance that Gergiev calls conducting?

  • Nick says:

    Long overdue!

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    I was turned off to Gergiev years ago when I watched Tony
    Palmer’s “Harvest of Sorrow,” a film about
    Rachmaninoff. When you get to the end…you wonder…
    “What’s THIS…….? It’s NOT about Rachmaninoff….

  • Evan Tucker says:

    Gergiev can certainly suck, but even in Mozart he can get it right. Listen to this Linz Symphony from Rotterdam. It’s damn good!

  • Cewan says:

    He tends to take things too quickly….the devil takes the hindmost!

  • Kakkis says:

    When thinking what Gergiev has achieved with the Mariinsky ever since the late 80ies, it is hugely insulting to regard him as a mere Putin-puppet. This is not to say that he can give horrible performances.