Gergiev’s post-anniversary cycle of Prokofiev symphonies

David NICE

Anniversaries, however necessary for the presentation of the rich and rare, have an unfortunate habit of eclipsing the composer’s chances in the years that follow. So it was especially surprising that for 2004 the London Symphony Orchestra should have “bought” Valery Gergiev’s proposal to conduct all seven Prokofiev symphonies – including both versions of the fourth – in six Barbican Centre concerts, and that the Royal Festival Hall should then welcome Gergiev the following month to conduct the complete Romeo and Juliet with his now world-class Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The moral being, presumably, that you don’t miss the chance of grabbing one of the world’s greatest conductors when you can (the snag with that, however, being that the Barbican had shied away from Gergiev’s proposal to perform the complete Story of a Real Man during the autumn of 2003).
   Not that London had been deprived of a cycle of Prokofiev symphonies around the anniversary; the BBC Symphony Orchestra spread its series carefully across the 2002-3 season, yielding a fascinatingly clear headed Second with Berglund and a Sixth from Saraste that was almost too painful, in the right way, to sit through. In all respects except perhaps his Sixth, Gergiev went predictably further, and his creative conducting style certainly took the LSO by surprise. Notewise the orchestra was hardly on top form – and I’m not just talking about split notes from the brass; a reminder perhaps that in an age where known repertoire like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring poses no technical problems, the exposed edginess of Prokofiev’s more extreme and least often-played works still causes difficulties. But there was no denying the electricity of Gergiev’s ever-flexible sweep, or the extraordinarily galvanising effect it had on an orchestra more used to the slow burn of principal conductor Sir Colin Davis (a man who has constantly turned down Prokofiev and Shostakovich scores on the grounds that they smack of “circus music”).
   The series kicked off on Saturday 1 May with a spirited, slightly wayward interpretation of the “Classical” Symphony which divided opinion; I was happier than your editor, for instance, with the inflections and the speed of the finale, though admittedly NoŽlle was present at the second of the two performances on 2 May, slightly more polished than the first but much less affectionate. No-one, however, could doubt the unsurpassable, wry elegance with which Gergiev swung back into the reprise of the Gavotte and his stylish rounding of its final whispers. There followed, in the first performance, the finest account of the Second that most of us have ever heard, recorded or live – its embattled first-movement multiple counterpoint balanced to perfection but still spring-heeled, no mere thrash, and its second-movement bel canto, despite an unfortunate oboe fluff, in ideal poise with the eerier and nastier variations. The Third had the same vital energy, but Gergiev’s view of it is so precipitate in the outer movements that some of the more subcutaneous horrors flew past too quickly; at least in the scherzo, bursting as it should straight out of the Andante’s anxious expectation, terror had fullest rein.