There was a lot riding on this concert – the first in a series of four (each repeated), under the banner ‘Gergiev’s Berlioz’. But before a single note was heard, both Hector Berlioz and the LSO’s principal conductor Valery Gergiev were upstaged by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Initially unrecognised and dressed in full evening suit, Tatchell mounted the stage and quietly denounced Gergiev’s friendship with and political support for Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Barbican Centre’s heavy mob eventually hustled him off amid mostly positive cheers.
Apparently heedless to the disruption, Gergiev strode onto the stage to deliver a robust reading of Berlioz’s Opus 1 Waverley overture. But Tatchell’s protest may have unsettled orchestra and conductor. The overture sounded a little over-loud in parts, with tempi pushed faster than in most interpretations. Calm was restored by the time Gergiev returned to the stage with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill for the song cycle Les Nuits d’Été. Here, the LSO and Gergiev were much more sensitive to the subtleties of the score.
Of course, the orchestra has long been familiar with Berlioz’ music, thanks to their long association with the late Sir Colin Davis. With Gergiev’s awareness of colour and timbre, their performance made for enjoyable listening. This was not really matched by Cargill, who over-dramatised the Gautier poems in operatic fashion, and sounded strained in most of the songs. A notable exception was the haunting At the Cemetery, which Cargill sang with depth and poignancy, supported sympathetically by brooding strings and quivering woodwind.
The real test piece as to whether or not Gergiev’s Berlioz amounted to anything special was his reading of the Symphonie Fantastique. On balance, he passed the test. Unlike Davis, say, Gergiev’s approach was energetic, even seething, rather than poetic. His flexibility with tempi also brought about some surprising effects. The slowing down of the strings in the latter portion of the opening ‘Rêveries, Passions’ movement, for example, produced a throbbing intensity which served to emphasise the final headlong thrust towards the coda. The waltz of the second-movement ball was a touch plodding at the outset and lacked sparkle, but the lengthy ‘Scene in the Country’ was characterised by inner beauty and expressive depth. Predictably, perhaps, the ‘March to the Scaffold’ went down a storm, with blaring brass on particularly good form. A swiftly paced and brilliantly played ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’ was particularly electrifying. This may not have been a very insightful interpretation of Berlioz’s intentions, but as ‘Gergiev’s Berlioz’ it certainly had impact.
The concert will be repeated on 14 November.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.