If you can say one thing about Valery Gergiev’s Barbican season of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Debussy, it has prompted artistic debate.
Debate over the programming, and debate over the performances – in a concert in March, a colourful but hardly luminous La Mer and a stupendously played but idiosyncratically moulded Rite of Spring divided critics.
But forget the debate, Sunday evening’s concert with the London Symphony Orchestra was of great quality.
I loved every minute of Debussy’s Symphonic fragments from ‘Le martyre de Saint Sbastien’: the purity of the opening woodwind harmonies, the majesty of the horn textures, the glorious cymbal-infested climaxes and the suspended piano lines. Say what you like about the occasional lack of supposedly Impressionistic shimmer; the performance was opulent yet possessing enough fire in the double basses and pointed harp playing to render it highly dramatic.
Previously, the opening movements of Prokofiev’s Four Portraits and Dnouement from ‘The Gambler’ displayed a tendency to understate the melodies amid the drama but, throughout, the playing was tremendous. In particular the sudden eruption of scrubbing string motifs and slamming percussion in the third movement.
And after the interval, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex was exciting and driven. The orchestra was superb throughout (take those especially stormy string sweeps underpinning the line Divum Jocastae caput mortuum), the men of the London Symphony Chorus on top, top form and the conducting highly dramatic, with dynamic tempi and even more dynamic aural balances.
Yevgeny Nikitin was a force of nature as Creon and Zlata Bulycheva a fruity Jocaste with only the slightest hint of a wobble up above. Oleg Balashov took a while to warm his tenor, but he explored his upper register well in the Infida ‘aria’ and controlled his voice superlatively throughout. However, there are concert performances and concert performances, and this one suffered from the lack of visual drama. King Oedipus has killed his dad and bedded his mum, and there was little sense of the character as either a heroic king or a shamed villain: the tenor was often to be found coughing quietly into his handkerchief. Which leads me to hope that he does not try too much, too soon, or he will harm what is a promising voice.
As an appetiser, the Barbican cinema offered up Lieutenant Kizhe, an early Russian flick with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it score from Prokofiev and a ropey narrative about a man who doesn’t exist. Two sequences – a balletic montage of parading troops and a drunk and disorderly rampage through the night on a horse and cart – provided anything equating to the thrills that would be found in the concert hall.