Chemistry between Gergiev and LSO on display in Prokofiev masterpiece.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 24, 2014


First, some general observations: both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Amsterdam Concertgebouw were already on stage tuning while the audience was entering the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House.  The London Symphony, in contrast, drift on, just as the BBC Symphony Orchestra did on their 2003 visit. No hint of European crispness here. I was particularly bemused by the languid entry of the Leader. Next, Valery Gergiev conducts with something the size of a glorified toothpick!

When I reviewed his Prokofiev symphony cycle for this magazine some years ago, I was disappointed at the lack of sparkle and general lethargy of the first movement of the Symphony No 1, the so-called Classical. These misgivings vanished immediately at the London Symphony Orchestra’s first Sydney concert. The tempi are still moderate but the sparkle is there. All the works performed in this concert provided no room for passengers, as one would expect from a touring program by an orchestra as illustrious as the London Symphony. One gorgeous and regrettably short-lived moment during the Classical Symphony has stayed in my mind: a passage for two flutes in the slow movement. For me, the woodwinds were primus inter pares of all the orchestral sections.

Stravinsky’s Petruchka was notable for the impressive maintenance of its often manic rhythmic energy throughout, with lovely fluttering woodwind, beautifully defined and articulated at the opening. The combination of charm, vibrant peasant colour, whimsy and lurking visceral danger made for a wonderful reading.

Gergiev’s real chemistry with the LSO, a take-no-prisoners orchestra if ever there were one, was on full display with Prokofiev’s undoubted symphonic masterpiece, the Fifth Symphony. This is one of the few dozen or so genuinely great symphonies of the 20th century and Gergiev and LSO gave the most powerful and intense performances I’ve ever heard. I read one review of their Philips performance which described it as “more serious than the usual orchestral romp”. Some romp! I sometimes wonder which planet some people inhabit. The Symphony was composed during the final days of the Second World War and is dedicated to “the grandeur of the human spirit” which is fair enough, but the operative word here is, I think, grandeur. Gergiev contructed the monolithic first movement, (which, in the wrong hands, can sound tentative without a “travelling tune” Allegro eventually)  block by block, like a moghul architect. The climax to this movement was shattering. My favourite movement is the second, which, along with the breezy finale, must surely have inspired, Shostakovich’s much darker and motoric scherzos. Another moment I always savour is during the trio when the first violins do a sort of louche slurring figure which reminds me of art deco curves. In the Adagio, it was the turn of the brass and strings to excel, with earth-shattering force.

Even the encore maintained the tension (none of your Swan Lake waltzes here, as exquisite as they are) but the Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. What an evening! What an orchestra!

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