After the very mixed bag of the opening event, reviewed in the last issue of Three Oranges, Gergiev’s new relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra struck consistent peak form in a blockbuster concert on 29 March. Prokofiev again had short shrift in terms of minutes, sandwiched between Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a muscular Debussy La Mer as well as a Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune with what must surely have been the most refined coda ever, a mere second-half curtain-raiser to Gergiev’s ever-idiosyncratic Rite of Spring. But Seven, they are Seven – resurrected for the first time since Rostropovich’s 1991 Prokofiev series – made its cataclysmic mark more surely than that other, more expectant “incantation” based on a Balmont translation, Stravinsky’s Zvezdoliki, in the first concert, even if tenor Avgust Akimov hurled out his imprecations more idiomatically than the LSO Chorus. The orchestra glittered even at shatteringly high levels of sonority and it was intriguing to hear such high claims being made for the work as Prokofiev’s modernist masterpiece in the interval.
More of a surprise, to this listener, was the stand-alone fluency of the Four Portraits and ‘Dénouement’ from The Gambler on 13 May, a white-heat companion to Debussy in mystic vein and a leaden, miscast Oedipus Rex which suddenly flamed in the dénouement. Outstandingly vocalised solos from the LSO woodwind, first oboe especially, combined with Gergiev’s symphonic sweep to make these Portraits a heady musical narrative even for listeners who knew nothing of their operatic source. The same rules applied to the usual suspects from Romeo and Juliet in the second half of the following evening’s concert; the orchestra knows this music all too well, but Gergiev’s intensity of gesture and skill in making the ten movements run together as a mini-drama made it sound like a new score.
The evening of 13 June posed a dilemma: whether to choose Vadim Repin’s compelling but now-familiar interpretation of the First Violin Concerto, along with the enticement of a Gergiev Petrushka, or Vladimir Jurowski’s first full concert with the London Philharmonic in the “new”, improved Royal Festival Hall. In the end, Jurowski’s Prokofiev Fifth proved the more enticing. It is now an interpretation of incredible detail and elastic tempi (especially surprising in the jagged idea which rounds off the first-movement exposition), perhaps a little calculated in the pathos of the slow movement and the finale’s rip-roaring coda, but allowing the sheen of the orchestra’s middle-range strings to make full use of the hall’s new, improved acoustics.
Back to Gergiev and the Barbican the next night, and predictably high levels for the grand finale of the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution. Who else could persuade an orchestral management to programme one of the biggest choral works of the twentieth century with one of the most concentrated, Stravinsky’s Les Noces (with a brief Debussy interlude in the shape of the Première Rapsodie)? They share a charismatic drive in common, though this Les Noces with a mixture of Russian and British players was a less sheerly electrifying experience than the all-Mariinsky performance Gergiev had previously unleashed at the Barbican.
As for the Cantata, the familiar Gergiev thrust could have yielded more at times to the between-the-lines pathos of such moments as the “Victory” theme, but otherwise swept all before it. Your editor is in some disagreement, but I was surprised by the idiomatic, even operatic Russian singing of the LSO chorus until I noted that some of the Mariinsky singers had been helpfully incorporated. The purely orchestral ”Symphony” was utterly compelling at a hell-for-leather pace. But should audience members rise to their feet, as some did, after the last Stalin setting, as if spellbound by a political rally? It’s a difficult question; the final C major, with what Gerard McBurney’s note described as “harmonic twists and turns” in the orchestra against the choral barrage, is surely ambiguous, like so much else in the work. For some, it’s all too much: my 70-year old companion refused to stay for the second half, and several audience members walked out before the end. But the work is a masterpiece of musical substance, no doubt, and the dissemination of this performance – simultaneously on the “big screen” in the City of London’s Broadgate Centre, lined up for broadcast at a later date on BBC 4 – should help to surprise a wider public.
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