thu 24/04/2014

Matsuev, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Matsuev, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican Hall

From the musical mud of Shchedrin to consummate Musorgsky-Ravel

Valery Gergiev: heavy Shchedrin, elastic Musorgsky-Ravel

Shchedrin's best works, in my experience - and his output has been prolific of late - colour and treat the themes of others: chastushki or Russian street songs in the brilliant Naughty Limericks Concerto (to be heard in the second programme of the season), Tchaikovsky in the Anna Karenina ballet and Bizet in his best-known score, music from Carmen arranged for strings and percussion to fit the brilliance of his great ballerina wife, Maya Plisetskaya.

Last night I found I liked the so-called Carmen Suite - ie the complete ballet score - a little less than I used to. Its more playful aspects still entertain, especially the displaced fun and games he has with the "Dragons d'Alcalà" episode, as well as the more famous "Toreador Song" minus one, and the bullring chorus given exclusively to the "tongs and the bones".

Whether you buy the serious stuff depends on whether you want to hear Bizet's unsurpassable orchestration, especially for woodwind, reworked in Mahlerian style. And boy, did Gergiev make a well-phrased meal out of it: the Card Scene, the Flower Song, the lovely Act Three Entr'acte were all de trop. Best, perhaps, was the hypnotic reworking of a number from Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth originally inserted into the opera's spurious Act Four ballet. This, at least, becomes a completely different piece in Gergiev's mesmerising, flickering hands.

But then it was time for Shchedrin to show what he could do on his own. Dennis Matsuev, a massive barnstormer in barnstorming music, nearly brought his grand piano to its knees, rocking it dangerously, and raised some members of the audience to their feet with the final toccata madness of the Fifth Piano Concerto. But what was there to it, really? A parade of very undistinguished ideas displaying their threadbare quality all the more in over-dense, angstily insistent wraps.

I guess the models for the slow music - too much of it in the work's first two thirds - might have been the powerful slow movements of Prokofiev's relatively little-known Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. But both have rich, if oblique, themes: listen again, Prokofiev said, and the outlines of a real face appear. But I wouldn't like to say what kind of face appears in Shchedrin's melodic writing, and I certainly don't want to hear the work again.

The programme's best-known component turned out much the freshest: Ravel's unsurpassable orchestration of Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Gergiev put paid to the cliché that Ravel isn't Russian enough for the piano original by getting bright legato playing à la Russe from an LSO brass department on top form, very much led by Philip Cobb (later matched for singing beauty by the alto saxophonist of "The Old Castle", uncredited in the programme). The lumbering ox cart raised the roof in soulful, tragic splendour, the famous Kievan gate shone at a speed helpful to its quasi-folksong roots.

Gergiev certainly let his virtuoso orchestra dazzle, both collectively - though Ravel rarely uses the full orchestra at once - and individually; there was all the time in the world, for instance, for the bass clarinet to gurgle eerily as the nutcracker gnome lurched forward, and I've never seen a double-bass department snap so insistently at the feet of witch Baba-Yaga's "Hut on fowl's legs".

The biggest wonder, though, was his continuous storytelling, his miraculous sense of proportions between numbers in what is, after all, a through-composed elegy (Musorgsky's to his dead friend, the architect and artist Viktor Hartmann), and an elasticity so dangerous that, like Abbado's, you feared it might snap. But it never did, and the energetic beat reminded us that in the art of rubato, what you steal in one bar you always have to give back. Yet another reminder, then, that when this maverick maestro is good, he's great.

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