Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

21 September 2008

In 1895, the 22 year-old Sergei Rachmaninov poured his soul into his First Symphony and produced a work of compelling originality and enormous tragic power.

However, a disastrous first performance resulted in scathing reviews and the disappearance of the symphony for almost 50 years. A great interpretation of the First, such as the one given by Valery Gergiev at this concert, demonstrates how wrong those early critics were.

With committed playing from the London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev confirmed the symphony’s position as one of Rachmaninov’s greatest works. His performance of the opening movement was notable for a dark Russian passion and a strong sense of fantasy, while the Allegro animato was restless with menacing undercurrents and the Larghetto imbued with wistful romanticism.

Best of all was the dramatic final movement, the energy of the processional opening section setting the scene for a reading of thrilling power and blood-boiling excitement. This was edge-of-the-seat music making.

The reading of the Third Symphony which followed was not quite as convincing. Almost 40 years separate the two symphonies and the Third inhabits a different world, more warmly romantic, less tragically inclined. However, Gergiev conducted an interpretation which brought many of the brooding tensions of the First – arguably more than Rachmaninov intended the later symphony to bear.

The opening of the first movement, for instance, was rather ponderous, the second subject edgy rather than tender, and the climax of the development searing rather than passionate. The second movement benefited from a demonic interpretation of the central scherzo section, but a little more warmth and joyfulness would have been welcome here and in the closing movement.

The LSO’s playing was splendid throughout, and the deployment of antiphonal violins was valuable in highlighting Rachmaninov’s imaginative writing for strings. Incidentally, both symphonies were recorded for future transmission on Radio 3 and release on LSO Live, and were also filmed for a documentary about Gergiev being made by CNN.

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