Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

29 January 2009

Valery Gergiev draws incandescent playing from the LSO in two pivotal works from the early 20th century.

Rarely has the primeval heartbeat of The Rite of Spring come across with such visceral power whilst Bartk’s only opera was spellbinding.

Pairing Stravinsky’s seminal ballet with Bartk’s other-worldly opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was an inspired move as we had the opportunity to hear two of the most important works from the last century performed alongside each other, and not surprisingly the cumulative effect was properly shattering.

Although some of the core orchestral repertoire is ill-suited to Gergiev’s temperament here he was in his element, especially in the Stravinsky. His reading of The Rite of Spring had the kind of gut-wrenching elemental force that is often missing in performance; at times it felt as though the Motherland herself was being pounded into submission by such a relentless torrent of pulsating rhythm and sound.

In Part One The Augurs of Spring was taken faster than I’ve ever heard it before, yet the LSO maintained pinpoint accuracy in its playing throughout and as this was a repeat of the concert heard two days earlier, any glitches that had been reported on the first night had duly been ironed out. Overall the playing was astonishingly assured, and textures were lucid this was proper edge of the seat stuff and confirmed once again that The Rite of Spring is the most important work of the 20th century.

No less compelling is Bartk’s only opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle especially when given a performance of such white-hot intensity as it was here. Without any extraneous business to divert the attention, we’re forced to focus on its two protagonists, Judith and Bluebeard, and the surreal dreamlike world they occupy. The libretto, by Bla Blazs, is rich in symbolism and follows Judith’s journey into revealing Bluebeard’s tortured soul which Bartok mirrors with a score that is rich, plush and brilliantly orchestrated.

Gergiev drew out all the myriad colours of this vivid score and the climax of the work, when Judith opens the fifth door, was breathtaking. Judith was to be have been performed by Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman but illness forced her to withdraw, and she was replaced by Elena Zhidkova who was nothing short of sensational. The way she acted with the voice was mesmerising and she produced some of the most thrilling singing that I’ve heard in a long time. The way she banged her fists in the air as if trying to open one of the doors of the castle added to the theatrical frisson between her and Sir Willard White’s grizzled and world-weary Bluebeard.

All in all this was one of the most memorable concerts of the season so far, and it’s good news that the concert was recorded for future release on the LSO Live label.

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