Prom 52 – Gergiev shakes the LSO through Prokofiev and Dutilleux

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 52 – Prokofiev, Dutilleux: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev. Royal Albert Hall, 23. 8.2011 (CG)

Prokofiev: Symphony no 1 in D (“Classical”) Op 25 (1916)
Henri Dutilleux: L’Arbre des Songes (1985)
Henri Dutilleux: Slava’s Fanfare (1977)
Prokofiev: Symphony no 5 in Bb Op 100 (1944)

The two composers featured tonight are two of Gergiev’s favourites; he has performed and recorded Prokofiev’s works extensively, and has been making a welcome feature of performing Dutilleux’s music too. In all the works on tonight’s schedule, therefore, the LSO and its chief conductor should be well rehearsed.

It was a little disappointing to find Gergiev with his head in the score for Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony, then, and even more disappointing to find the first movement being taken rather clumsily, and certainly well on the slow side of allegro. The ensemble playing was noticeably a little imprecise – not surprising because Gergiev seems to think it okay to shake his fingers in the air rather than provide the splendid LSO with a firm beat in music which demands the utmost precision. Things fared a little better in the second movement which was not without charm, but sank into ponderousness again with the third. The breakneck speed of the final movement could perhaps have been breathlessly exciting had Gergiev given the orchestra a really firm beat, and the LSO certainly deserve praise for keeping the tempo going at such a lick, but once again there was a lot of disconcerting shaking of fingers and not much direction, and finally I felt it was far too rushed to be anything but rather thrown-away. The performance was not without some strong points; there were some individually delightful contributions from the woodwind, and one sensed that there was a superb performance just around the corner. How frustrating!

Dutilleux fared much better, as one might expect with the outstanding violinist, Leonadas Kavakos, on stage for L’Arbre des Songes. Although dressed in a designer suit and now with copious amounts of jet-black hair, he is naturally modest and plays with astonishing musicality – his tone in this work was not massive, but absolutely convincing in its sense of line, phrase and sure intonation. This has long been a favourite work of mine, with its exotic orchestral colours breathing everything French, and the LSO rose to the occasion with superbly judged interplay between soloist and orchestra, and a particularly outstanding contribution from Christine Pendrill in the notoriously difficult oboe d’amore solos. How the piece constantly unfolds its tree of dreams with a continual development of melodic phrases, always surprising yet somehow logical, is a source of wonder. Moreover, the orchestration of this piece, an integral part of the composition of course, is absolutely gorgeous; sensuously beautiful, but frequently acidic – rather like a superb Sancerre or Montrachet with twists of lemon from the cimbalom and delicately tinkling percussion. A delightful surprise was the crystal clarity with which everything sounded in the often chaotic acoustic of the Albert Hall. Fabulous music, superbly performed.

The rarely performed Slava’s Fanfare, composed for the 70th birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich, proved to have many of Dutilleux’s hallmarks – perhaps a fanfare that only Dutilleux could write. A lot of interplay between the trumpets and trombones precedes a brief reference to Dvorak’s Cello Concerto – and then suddenly it’s all over. An interesting four-minute novelty, brief and very much to the point.

The Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev, a big undertaking for any orchestra or conductor, was described by Prokofiev as “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.” He added that it clamoured for expression – “it filled my soul.” Composed towards the end of the Second World War, in a safe place provided by the State, it is the composer’s reaction to world events; nevertheless, it is also tight in its construction, and is by turns darkly dramatic, nostalgically emotional, and ironically witty.

It is no mean feat to judge the tempi and character of the various trains of thought effectively; this performance certainly had impressive moments of suitably dark drama and there was much to admire in the LSO’s characteristically incisive performance generally. But here again, Gergiev’s waffly rather than sure direction provided too many opportunities for the orchestra to break ranks. The horns came adrift near the beginning, and there were other brief moments of uncertainty. This would not happen in other hands and although one cannot question Gergiev’s seriousness of purpose and magnetic presence, question marks concerning the basic essential function of a conductor continue to trouble this reviewer very deeply. Why stand there shaking and waving your fingers when the orchestra desperately needs a proper BEAT?! Gergiev has become simply one of the most irritating conductors to watch and how an orchestra follows him remains a mystery to me. It’s extraordinary, considering his starry status.

Christopher Gunning