According to one writer, the arrival of Valery Gergiev as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra was “the orchestral coup of the century”.
Perhaps this is stretching the point a little far but it is nevertheless a daring appointment that may or may not prove fruitful.
Gergiev’s opener on Tuesday evening at least had a pretty exciting Firebird, but this all Russian programme was otherwise not the red letter night that most had anticipated.
With regard to The Firebird, the complete ballet score can be a long slog without the dancing, and it was here, for all of the visceral thrill of the orchestral playing. But Gergiev captured that white hot essence of Stravinsky with such conviction that barely a cough disturbed the hall for its 45-minute running time. The conductor’s sense of architecture was extraordinary, and if certain passages made little sense without a visual companion, they were integrated into an overall tapestry with absolute conviction. The Infernal Dance excited not solely for its crystal clear rhythms and pinpoint forte stabs, but also for the inevitability of its arrival.
Matching such oversight was the playing of the LSO which, barring the odd brass blip and some dangerous violin vibrato in the opening Rimsky-Korsakov scene painting, was thrilling and technically superb. Every solo voice was superlative, especially in the woodwind; the solo horn was firm; the first violin phrased with intelligence. Percussion was flawless, with timpani blasts frequently bursting from the orchestral canvas to devastating effect, while the final brassy climax arrived with such glorious self belief that it prompted an instantaneous standing ovation from much of the Stalls.
The first half of the concert had excited less, though not for want of trying. Stravinsky’s rarely performed The King of the Stars was written in 1911 after the premiere of Petrushka, and is a strange little thing. The required orchestra may be sizeable, but Stravinsky composed a muted, shimmering accompaniment to the four part harmony for male choir. The Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus made a fair stab at a difficult work, with the first tenors especially navigating their abusively high writing with style. However, the exposed lines found a troubling mix of timbres, especially in the bass section, and too many harmonies smudged. The result was hardly thrilling.
And was the other Stravinsky on the programme, the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, thrilling? It was certainly loud, and pianist Alexander Toradze found a certain sweep of feeling in the solo cadenzas. Sadly, he also hacked away for most of it, overemphasising the work’s percussive qualities and failing to define the contrapuntal textures of the first movement with some hazy over-pedalling. Then again, with the piano placed so far back on such a cluttered stage, Toradze was fighting a losing battle.
Better was the item sandwiched in between Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. Gergiev’s Nosferatu-like outstretched arms milked every ounce of suffocating tension from the last movement’s final crescendo, but even more absorbing was the evocation of Night, with its hushed opening caressed by the violins and a darker menace suggested by the outstandingly secure low strings. All in all, a mixed evening, with as many standing ovations as there were closed eyes.