If anything linked the four pieces under his baton, it was their edginess and sense of other-worldliness.
Dark forces are clearly evident in Ravel’s La Valse. Composed shortly after the First World War, the ‘choreographic poem’ was originally intended as a homage to the lost world of Johann Strauss’s Vienna, but ended up as a macabre parody from a composer who had seen service in the conflict against France’s Austro-German enemies. Gergiev chose to emphasise the work’s burlesque rather than vengeful nature, cranking up the rhythmic and orchestral turbulence until the anarchic finale. But even here, he had time to pick out aspects of Ravel’s brilliant scoring, including a curiously Spanish flavour that seeped through the central section.
A sense of spatial and temporal uncertainty looms large in Gyrgy Ligeti’s Atmosphres. Composed in 1961, it dispenses with traditional rhythm, melody and harmony, and seeks to build up tonal ‘sculptures’ through varied chordal clusters and instrumental combinations. Not for nothing did Stanley Kubrick pinch bits of the score for his 2001: A Space Odyssey. In such an apparently formless piece, it was best to sit back and let Gergiev make sense of it all. This he did, with an astonishing degree of control over the apparently disparate forces around him.
Gergiev has become a staunch advocate of the music of Henri Dutilleux, airing several of his works over the last couple of seasons. As with Atmosphres, Mystre de L’instant (written in 1989) dispenses with melody, and explores shifting textures of sound across the ten short movements. Again, Gergiev was in full control of the large string orchestra, plus percussion and cimbalom, eliciting some extraordinary playing from the LSO members.
The whole of the second half was taken up with a brilliant account of Stravinsky’s ballet score Petrushka. Of his three pre-1914 ballets, Petrushka is the most difficult to bring off in the concert hall. It’s closeness to the ballet’s narrative means that listeners can sometimes feel lost if they are unfamiliar with the stage action. But Gergiev’s painterly conducting brought each scene to life, including the central two, which are possibly the least interesting musically. His teasing out of orchestral effects reminiscent at times of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and even Wagner were a further source of fascination.