With his steely gaze and clenched jaw, Valery Gergiev looked as though he meant business for this opening concert of the LSO’s season.
But instead of an all-out attack on the music, we ended up with an interpretation of subtlety and intelligence.
From the opening bars of Debussy’s La Mer, it was clear that this performance was something special.
There was an almost religious intensity to the hushed opening of the first movement (“From Dawn to Noon on the Sea”), with cello and harp rising imperceptibly from the misty dawn. Elsewhere, the LSO strings dazzled with their leaping mood changes and technical virtuosity.
“The Play of the Waves” was almost balletic in its rhythmic vitality and instrumental delicacy, while the “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” relied for its power on the exposure of the dark undertones within the score rather than on excessively forceful playing.
At the age of 93 there must be little to phase Henri Dutilleux. Certainly the composer took in his stride the hordes of well wishers and autograph hunters who greeted him after the performance of his violin concerto, L’Arbre de Songes. And he had every right to bask in the reflected glory of the LSO and soloist Leonidas Kavakos. The emphasis was on the poetic, mythical connotations of the work’s title, particularly in the dreamy third movement. Kavakos handled the solo part with warmth and compassion, supported by supple orchestral playing.
From Dutilleux’s Breton forest the LSO moved on to Ravel’s arcadian landscape. His ballet Daphnis and Chlo is best known from the two orchestral suites he arranged for concert performances. It is a comparative rarity to hear the full-length ballet, including the wordless chorus, which is often omitted. With huge forces under his command, Gergiev did not disappoint.
His fluttering hand gestures belied a firm control of the players, underpinned by a deeply intelligent understanding of the score. The real joy was in seeing him uncover the layers of sound that make up the fabric of the music a flicker of woodwind here, an unexpected harp ripple there. The LSO Chorus at times lacked the necessary bite, and even sounded a touch wobbly in parts. But it was the orchestral insights that really made this concert special.