Gubaidulina’s Bayan Concerto Adds Lustre to LSO Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Gubaidulina, Tchaikovsky: Geir Draugsvoll (bayan), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 24.11.11 (GD)

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op 25 ‘Classical’
Sofia Gubaidulina: FachwerkConcerto for Bayan, Percussion, and Strings (2009)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op.64

Any performance of a work by Gubaidulina is something of an event and tonight’s performance of what is effect an accordion concerto was no exception. The work’s title ‘Fachwerk’ is German for Framework. This term is an architectural metaphor and Gubaidulina has spoken of how ‘Fachwerk’ is both a formal analogy for the concerto, but also how it denotes and incorporates not only the visual elements of a construction, but also their function and architectural character or tonality, as is more fitting for a musical composition. However as Gubaidulina’s unique soundscape started to unfold I had the impression of the overall textual, compositional style of the work as inimical to any kind of framing. Indeed, in several passages I had a sense of the percussion ensemble (especially the awesome sounding gong) actually disrupting the flow of the music, threatening the established dialectic between percussion and a reduced string ensemble. Was there even an element of Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony? But there is absolutely nothing of Carl Nielsen, or any other musical influence, in the work proper.

The bayan is a Russian version of the accordion with, as the programme notes tell us, ‘has a wider range than most Western forms of the instrument, together with a more powerful bass and a slightly different timbre’. The work was written for the tonight’s player, the Norwegian Geir Draugsvoll. Throughout this continuous 30 minute composition the bayan is more or less dominant, not so much in the virtuoso sense, but in the sense of initiating the work’s major themes and sub-themes. All I can say is that Draugsvoll produced a truly staggering range of sounds and textures with a very resonant and powerful bass register complemented by all kinds of fff to ppp tones in the middle and top registers. All had a grainy, suitably impolite (in the best sense of the word) tone. From my very euro-centric musical perspective it would be difficult to describe this array of sounds in all the registers of this fascinating instrument, suffice it to say that it has to be heard to be appreciated. I did hear in several places a diatonic resonance, which sounded more Eastern than anything encompassed in standard Western classical music. This may have something to do with music Gubaidulina grew up with in her native Kazan. Tonight’s performance captured the dialectical accompanying element between the reduced string orchestra and the percussion section to perfection, with every glissando and diatonic inflection sounding. But, as implied, it was really the soloist Geir Draugsvoll with his extraordinary instrument, who stole the show!

For some time now I have had the general impression that Tchaikovsky the symphonist is taken much more seriously than was once the case. This impression has been corroborated by conductors as divergent as Markevitch, Klemperer and Abbado, among others. One way of taking Tchaikovsky the symphonist seriously, of course, is to adhere to his quite specific tempi and dynamic makings in the score. One example of this would be in the first movement’s second theme which develops around the basic key of D major. There has been a tradition of conductors slowing down here. But if we check the score we find that Tchaikovsky adds the metronome mark of 92 which is in accord with the already established tempo. In classic performances by Mravinsky we hear a slowing down here, but Mravinsky keeps the underlying pulse on the move and makes a very convincing transition to the following dramatic passage marked at 104. Tonight Gergiev delivered the most mannered performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony I can remember. – even exceeding earlier mannered performances already alluded to . In the passage mentioned above Gergiev didn’t just slow down, he almost came to a halt thus necessitating a huge accelerando to get back into the tempo of the following dramatic section. Indeed Gergiev made so many arbitary tempo changes here and throughout the symphony that it almost sounded like the welding together of two separate performances! In the movement’s diminuendo coda, reaching a dark B minor, the tempo just became slower and slower.

Most of the second movement dragged in a tempo which was not only too slow but also verging on the ponderous. And I couldn’t hear much ‘cantabile’, as directed in the the main ‘Andante’ heading. The last thunderous fff assertion of the symphony’s fateful motto theme, with full brass to the fore, sounded less impressive with Gergiev adding timpani thwacks to the final powerful staccato brass chords thus reducing a carefully worked out strategy of dramatic contrast to something more banal. The movement’s coda again was drawn out. Unnecessarily.

The ‘valse’ movement did pick up speed with some quite lucid woodwind playing. But I missed the movement’s sense of grace and elegance; it sounded more like a rehearsal run-through. The finale lacked any feeling of line and thematic coherence. Again it sounded like a run-through, as though the conductor was not really engaged. Instead of a thrilling build up to the last triumphant peroration, with the motto theme delivered by a resonant full orchestra, it all sounded rather bland, loud and bashed out, with some moments of untidy ensemble. Rather than the razor edged rhythmic diversity experienced in the best performances, there was a distinct lack of rhythmic, dynamic contrast, with everything pounding away at what sounded like the same rather brash dynamic level.

The concert opened with a rather plodding account of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony. It started with a degree of rhythmic precision and intensity, but this was offset by Gergiev’s sluggish tempo which in no way adhered to Prokofviev’s unambiguous ‘Allegro’. The Larghetto sounded more like a largo which virtually nullified the movement’s underlying dance rhythms . Both the Gavotte and the Finale needed more elegance and mercurial buoancy. In the finale in particular the rhythms sounded too heavy, lacking any sense of ‘molto vivace’ lightness of touch. All this was not helped by moments of uncoordinated ensemble, no doubt connected with Gergiev’s rather erratic conducting gestures which, as far as I could discern, had little to do with the basic contour beat which orchestral players rely on.

Geoff Diggines