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

London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican Hall

London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican Hall

Little sense or subtlety to this Brahms and Szymanowski pairing from the whirlwind Russian

Valery Gergiev: 'so expressive, if not exactly affectionate, that we must surely have his recording of this repertoire'

Valery Gergiev is a human dynamo.

Even before embarking on the latest tranche of his (slightly curious) pairing of Szymanowski and Brahms with the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been principal conductor since 2007, at the Barbican, the man who is arguably not just a musical but a socio-political force in his native country and music director of the most famous opera and ballet company in the world was down that morning at the Russian Embassy in London, promoting his plans for a whole new complex (Mariinsky 2), which from May next year will dramatically enhance the prospects of an ensemble that is, by now, in little need of revitalising. Under Gergiev the former Kirov opera and ballet is simply unmatchable.

Then down to London’s least appetising venue for what was billed as a fascinating juxtaposition. True, to pair Brahms with, say, Schoenberg, who drew inspiration from the older composer’s cellular structures and textures (and who scintillatingly orchestrated Brahms’s Piano Quartet), would have been really apt. Or Brahms and Sibelius, whom you periodically hear pre-echoes of in the Brahms Third Symphony (just as you encounter endless pre-echoes of Dvorak’s Seventh). Or Reger and Szymanowski (for the latter’s truncated First and massive Second Symphonies); or Szymanowski and Debussy, Stravinsky (Petrushka, say) or Scriabin.

The LSO had to cope with an acoustic that is both over-exaggerating and tinny

But Brahms and Szymanowski, the Polish master whose exoticism set the tone for Lutoslawski and much of Polish Modernism, makes no sense at all, except as a way of whipping audiences in. Unless, that is, you think of Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, Song of the Night - a work so subtle it could be written on tissue paper - as a piece of blazing bombast. That is how Gergiev and the exciting if at times rather unsubtle LSO approached much of Brahms’s Third Symphony, and with some justification. 

But Szymanowski? Heavens, no. Listen to any recording, including Simon Rattle’s with Ryszard Minkiewicz and the CBSO, of this gorgeous, star-shimmering, fabulously orchestrated work and you will get a better idea of its ravishing textures, Scheherazade-like dreaming and mysterious yearning than we were offered last night. The LSO chorus, prepared here by Simon Halsey (who of course worked on Szymanowski with Rattle), was terrific, its Polish pronunciation pretty tip-top even if the consonant enunciation might have been clearer.

Toby Spence, who sings the enraptured solo (an inspired Polish translation by Tadeusz Micinski of the Persian medieval Sufi poet Jalal’ad-Din Rumi), rising over choir and orchestra with the same kind of passion that imbues Szymanowski’s song cycles of this First World War period, which produced arguably his greatest works of all, was pure delight (though occasionally overborne despite his questionable forward placing). Had he been placed at the back with the chorus, Gergiev might have felt obliged to tone the whole thing down. And what a difference it would have made, for he is clearly passionate about this composer he has chosen currently to champion.

"O nie spij, druhu, nocy tej" – "Do not sleep friend, through this night". It looks like an invitation to ravenous lovemaking, though in fact it is a call to rapt meditation on the silent glories of the starry night and the universe. But make no mistake about it, no one could have slept through this LSO slumberland. Though the orchestra played heroically, as they always do, with wonderful contributions from the woodwind and (especially) first horn – Timothy Jones, rightly given the only special bow - and his colleagues, the strings full of top-flight players but not always, en masse, especially well characterised, this was a noisy, and to my mind noisome, performance.

Spence (pictured left) was thrice overborne, and not, one would argue, by Szymanowski’s textures, but by Gergiev’s apparent belief that passion is best expressed by tub-thumping. Had he reined not just bits, but the whole thing, in and explored the possibilities of a more mezzo-forte (not quadruple forte) climax here and there, what a difference it would have made. As in the Brahms, the orchestra didn’t produce a single pianissimo, let alone a truly still moment (though their silences were notably good).  Both Gergiev’s and the orchestra’s key build-ups were simply superb in the Brahms St Anthony (Haydn) Variations, not least because Gergiev often held them back, so you felt the crescendo beginning, or ached for it to do so, before it actually began. That was really superb team management. 

The Brahms - symphony and variations alike - scored in the more restrained bits: the sections in all movements, not just one, where Brahms characteristically introduces a lilt, a sly waltzing, say, almost like a Slavonic (or Hungarian) dance. It may not have been piano, but each was lulling, beautiful and exquisitely detailed. Structurally, what a clever and invigorating composer he was. But in Brahms, you did not especially have to listen out (as in the Szymanowski) for a celesta, a tiny flutter of bass clarinet, flutes playing in the piccolo range, or an exquisite solo by the leader, Roman Simovic, that could have been three times softer if his fellow players weren’t bashing away like Beethoven conducted by Toscanini. But even they had to cope with an acoustic that is both over-exaggerating and tinny. Both of which Szymanowski’s Third Symphony is not.

So, overall, a disappointment. Gergiev is so expressive ("the eyes have it"), if not exactly affectionate, that we must surely have his recording of this repertoire. The only thing is, the music has to be as mesmerising as he is.

Toby Spence was thrice overborne by Gergiev’s apparent belief that passion is best expressed by tub-thumping


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Gergiev was at the 'Soviet Embassy'?

Russian Embassy, of course! Thank you, we have fixed.

Sometimes the former Kirov company is unmatchably...awful. Their Wagner Ring and disastrous Verdi series, Gergiev's leaden Boris Godunov and tech-swamped Shostakovich Nose: these have been among the lows. Western directors still find trying to work there a nightmare, and no good that I have seen has yet come out of their efforts. But when the company is good, it is very good indeed. Much like Gergiev's concert performances.

You mention 'socio-political force' as if it were in an admirable context. I gather Gergiev's stance at the launch meant supporting his mate Putin's hardline stance on P*** Riot (how quickly we forgot his disgraceful role in the Russia/Georgia standoff). I don't suppose there were any noises of dissent among the craven folk present. By the way, the asterisks are because my post has 'triggered the profanity filter'. How rich is that on the anything-goes Arts Desk?

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