BBC Proms reviews

Prom 41: LSO/Gergiev @ Royal Albert Hall, London

13 August 2013

Valery Gergiev

Valery Gergiev

Although the BBC Symphony Orchestra is the lynchpin of every Proms season (contributing 11 concerts during this year’s festival), the capital’s other ensembles almost always make an appearance or two. Tonight it was the turn of the London Symphony Orchestra, contributing an all Russian programme under Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev.

Borodin’s delightful Second Symphony was a frequent visitor to the Proms during the early decades of the twentieth century but has been neglected in recent times, its last outing before this concert occurring in 1971. Gergiev’s interpretation of the opening movement was notable for its muscular climaxes and dark hued sound, the LSO projecting a much fuller bass than normally heard on its home turf in the Barbican. The performance of the Scherzo, alternating energy and lyricism, also made a strong impression. By contrast, Gergiev’s very slow tempo for the Andante was less convincing, frequently robbing Borodin’s melodic inspiration of its freshness and ardour. The finale brought incisive playing from the orchestra, particularly strings and woodwind, but the movement’s joyful demeanour was undermined by Gergiev’s insistence on excessively loud cymbal crashes.

As with many lesser known composers, Alexander Glazunov’s music is widely available in recorded form but rarely makes it into the concert hall. Performances of his Second Piano Concerto of 1917 seem especially rare, this being its first appearance in the history of the Proms. The concerto’s inspiration might not match that of the composer’s finest works, notably the Fifth Symphony and the The Seasons, but is worth hearing when the performance is as fine as this one by Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov. The opening of the Andante in particular was spellbinding, Trifonov’s performance at one with the music’s romantic sensibility, supported by Gergiev’s exceptionally sympathetic accompaniment. Trifonov followed the concerto with a performance of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird transcribed for piano, a performance so dazzling it sounded as if it was being played by four hands rather than two.

The programme’s focus on the unfamiliar continued with a performance of The Rider on the White Horse by Sofia Gubaidulina, a composer whose music Gergiev has regularly championed over the years. Extracted from her 2001 oratorio St John Easter, the work depicts the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. Gergiev relished the score’s explosive climaxes and thundering organ chords, which sounded tremendous in the Royal Albert Hall’s vast acoustic, but also found rapture in the muted fanfares and otherworldly sonorities in the later stages of the work. It left me intrigued to hear the rest of Gubaidulina’s oratorio.

A more familiar work served to conclude the concert, namely Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the orchestration by Ravel. Gergiev provided an imaginative and compelling account of the score, supported by first class playing from the LSO, massed brass particularly effective. Gergiev’s insistence on overly loud cymbal crashes in The Great Gate of Kiev once again proved a bain, but otherwise this was a notable performance.

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