Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

18 December 2009

This performance by the LSO and their principal conductor was presented as the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award Winners’ Concert, even though Valery Gergiev won that gong back in May.

In their citation, the RPS praised Gergiev’s intelligent approach and his willingness to take risks. In this concert there was plenty of intelligence, but rather less risk taking.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante dfunte made for a disappointing start. Saccharine sweet, the piece plodded along at an achingly slow tempo. The orchestra played well enough, but there was not enough of a stately, measured pace to dispel thoughts of Ravel’s quip that it was the infanta who had died, not the music. Gergiev and the LSO were on better form with Ravel’s Bolro, which ended the concert. Neil Percy was a little quiet at first with the incessant snare drum rhythm, but the pace quickly picked up to hypnotic effect, with Gergiev allowing the players their own quirky take on the famous repeated melody.

Gergiev’s control over the sizeable orchestra in Debussy’s Jeux was masterful. The presence of a large number of players was barely noticeable as they skilfully flitted across the shifting textures of Debussy’s score. Highlighted details celesta chords here; xylophone rhythmic patterns there made this a real pleasure to listen to. Less satisfying was Stravinsky’s ballet Jeu de Cartes, but that was not the fault of the performers. Composed in 1936 for Georges Balanchine’s nascent American Ballet, Jeu de Cartes is not Stravinsky’s most sophisticated or arresting creation. With a spurious storyline based on a game of poker and conventional orchestration, the piece relies on heavy rhythmic patterns for much of its appeal. The forces of the LSO seized on these opportunities, playing the work with great gusto. The brass section in particular punctuated the faster sections with resounding aplomb, while angular strings clearly marked out the choreographic steps.

Gergiev seems to have a growing affinity with Henri Dutilleux. The LSO’s performance of his violin concerto, L’Arbre de Songes, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist and in the presence of the composer was warmly received at the Barbican in September. The orchestra’s rendition of Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 2 (‘Le Double’) was equally intriguing, although the score is rather uneven. The symphony’s subtitle derives from the fact that a small chamber ensemble is separated from the rest of the orchestra on stage. But whereas in Stockhausen’s Gruppen and Boulez’s Rituel separate groupings of players are essential to the fabric of the works, Dutilleux’s symphony never really utilises the double arrangement effectively. The highlight of the symphony was the haunting central Andantino. The prominent harpsichord was reminiscent of films scores of the late 1950s (the symphony was completed in 1959), and harked back to Dutilleux’s antecedents in French classicism via Debussy and Ravel.

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