From what I saw, Valery Gergiev’s recent series of Stravinsky, Debussy and Prokofiev with the London Symphony Orchestra was of mixed quality.
But here in their Prom of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, the LSO were on top form.Judging by the high level of musicianship all round, it seems that the orchestra is now fully adjusted to its new Principal Conductor.
Two Tchaikovsky Fantasy Overtures – Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet – continued the Shakespeare theme of this years season. Both were impressive, the former most so in its passages of conflict, with a tremendous security of string ensemble doing much for the scrubbing writing and valiant percussion powerfully suggesting the feuding Capulets and Montagues.
Yet there was also real, labouring weight in the clarinet-infested introduction and in the tense development passages. Some scrawny violin notes harmed the famous love theme, but this seemed to me a lucid and thoughtful reading of a much-played favourite. And Hamlet was no less good, with the hypnotic, trance-like oboe theme of particular note and the fleeting love music’s luxurious sexuality undercut by well-placed murmerings of menace. Above all, Gergiev does ‘anguish’ very well, and that does this music no harm.
The two works by Prokofiev were well chosen. The Second Piano Concerto, originally written in 1913, sees the composer in provocative mood, as much in the unorthodox order of movements as in the fiendishly demanding, maniacal solo writing. The Seventh Symphony, completed in 1952, is the composer’s debatably-intentioned response to Soviet censorship of the period. It is an unashamedly more accessible work, brimming with easy-to-digest melody and harmony, though the fun is undeniably ambiguous. The two works effectively contrasted one another.
And they both came across well. The scintillating pianist Alexander Toradze never made the concerto look easy, but his was a heroic effort, with his firm, decisive touch particularly welcome in the cadential passages. And the symphony was given a sensitive performance, with Gergiev especially alert to the sparkling orchestration and the snatches of melodic counterpoint. In the original ending (played here), the dazzlingly virtuosic final movement withdraws to a simply repeated motive on the tuned percussion, over which resplendent brass cadences hang suspended, and finally fade to nothing. (Wagner ends Die Walküre in a very similar way.) The effect here was magical.