Romance and sheer murder rub shoulders in a searing Russian program.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 15, 2014

They’re a likable bunch, the London Symphony Orchestra – very English looking, arriving on the platform a little haphazardly, and exchanging jolly banter. But don’t be fooled – behind the friendly mask lurks a razor-sharp musical machine, and in the hands of Valery Gergiev, they are trained to kill!

For their second Sydney concert, the LSO presented two giants of Russian classical music – Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. Denis Matsuev was the soloist for Rachmaninov’s hyper-emotional Second Piano Concerto. Considered something of a Russian bear, a quick check of his Facebook page reveals his softer side with a snap yesterday showing him clearly delighted with an Australian cousin (it looks like Matsuev’s koala had more fun than Vladimir Putin’s at the recent G20).

Matsuev and furry friend

Dwarfing the keyboard, the Russian pianist crouched low for most of what is probably the most romantic of all romantic piano concertos. I was, perhaps, surprised at how controlled he was early on – restrained and easy on the rubato. Gergiev drove the music hard, pulling out all the dramatic stops, though occasionally the orchestra swamped the soloist. The orchestra themselves meanwhile exhibited the same cast iron discipline and responsiveness that made their first concert so thrilling.

Two things I find myself drawn to about Valery Gergiev. One is his highly watchable ‘painting in the air’ gestures – the right hand wielding the oversized toothpick (as my colleague Greg Keane yesterday referred to the maestro’s micro-baton). The slightest gesture draws a detailed orchestral response that speaks of time well spent in the rehearsal room. The other is his determination to move on from movement to movement with a musical dramatist’s instinct for the big picture. No breathers permitted on Gergiev’s emotional journey.

If Matsuev had been on the aural back foot at times in the opening movement, he was very much on the money in the famous Adagio, playing with firmness and passion. His muscly hands wrang every ounce out of Rachmaninov’s melodies. Gergiev’s physical and vocal exhortations (did I mention he’s a grunter – rather like his predecessor Sir Colin Davis) became an elegant dance, arms sweeping in ecstasy, fluttering hands crafting every twist and turn. Those who had heard his Prokofiev the previous night knew what to expect from a Gergiev finale, and again this was gripping stuff, pacey, urgent and nuanced. Matsuev matched him bar for bar, and when it came to the big theme it was suitably emotionally devastating. A well-deserved standing ovation tempted the soloist to return for a surprisingly comedic encore – a delicate whirl through Liadov’s Musical Snuffbox.

My colleague yesterday spoke of Prokofiev’s Fifth as one of only a dozen or so truly great 20th-century symphonies. I’d suggest that Shostakovich’s Tenth also deserves admission to that élite Pantheon. One of the composer’s most widely ranging utterances, it runs the gamut from brooding tragedy and despair, through gallows-humour and bitter irony, to radiant hope and madcap joy – or, of course, does it? Anyway, it is a Gergiev speciality and the LSO’s performance last night could probably not have been bettered anywhere on the planet.

Pacing, control of dynamics and power of storytelling were paramount in the long first movement. With Gergiev, every phrase carried meaning. Sombre strings, alternately lamenting or shrilly screaming woodwind, baleful brass – all passed by in glorious panoply. And boy was their loud, loud! Solos for flute and a duet for clarinets were especially memorable here.

The ‘Stalin Portrait’ second movement was harsher than I’ve ever heard, Gergiev focusing on brutality and power rather than mere speed. An utterly terrifying musical juggernaut – get in its path if you dared. And a word of praise for the marvellous cymbal player – here was a man not afraid to show us the insides of his instruments. Powering straight on into the crazy world of the third movement made the DSCH motto seem even more weird and oblique than usual. There were gorgeous bassoon and cor anglais solos, and a stunning controlled solo horn too.

By now the drama was intense – you could have heard a pin drop. The transition into the finale was spellbinding, moody strings and sad wind solos making their telling points. The release, when it came, with its maddeningly perky little tune was total. Whatever you reckon Shostakovich was trying to say with this demonic denouement, Gergiev made his own statement, loud and clear. The Polonaise from Eugene Onegin was the absolute ice in my vodka!

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