Gergiev and the LSO: Superb in Stravinsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Stravinsky: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 11.5.2012 (Gdn)

Stravinsky: Mass
Violin Concerto
The Firebird (complete ballet)

Stravinsky always sounds like Stravinsky, but that doesn’t mean a concert dedicated to his music is in any danger of monotony. Gergiev’s programme for this evening was brilliantly thought out. It worked in reverse chronology from 1948 to 1910. That meant a gradual increase in Romantic expression, from the austerity of the Mass, through the lively neoclassicism of the Violin Concerto to the perennial and fantastical Firebird. He could have taken the idea further, by starting with the Requiem Canticles perhaps, but the composer’s musical evolution was amply demonstrated, and made all the clearer for this retrograde approach.

It is rare to hear Stravinsky’s Mass performed by such a large choir, and the larger numbers must increase the potential problems of synchronisation. But the LSO Chorus was on top form this evening, giving sharp edges to all those austere and emphatic phrases. In fact, the balance worked well between the ten instrumentalists and the 50/60-ish singers. (That was another interesting progression through the programme, the gradual increase of instrumental forces from piece to piece.) Soloists were drawn from the choir, which was an excellent decision. Not only did the singers rise to the challenge, but they did so with all the modesty that the work requires, and that you couldn’t imagine from professional soloists. Good playing from the small ensemble too; austere and rugged, but always lively and sensitive. Among the orchestral sections, the heroes of this evening were the trombones and bassoons. They were busy in every work, and fitted into the various styles magnificently.

The Stravinsky Violin Concerto is a work that seems to adapt to the individual merits of whichever violinist performs it. Leonidas Kavakos has a precise and focussed sound – essential in any Stravinsky – but what really makes his playing special is the rich, woody tone he produces, especially on the lower strings. Stravinsky highlights this fine sound by regularly coupling the soloist with the woodwind section, and when Kavakos is playing that’s a match made in heaven. Having heard him in a number of Romantic concertos, I know he can make much more noise than he did this evening. But he toned it down to match Stravinsky’s Classical orchestra and the balance was ideal. Just like the choir in the Mass, Kavakos gave a performance that balanced neoclassical reserve with nimble energy. Perhaps he seemed a little frustrated by the formality of the inner movements, but when we reached the finale it became clear that he’d been saving up his energies for this final lively dance. Gergiev loosened the reins a little here, and the synchronisation between soloist and orchestra sometimes went a little awry. The last chord was also out of kilter. But none of that really mattered as it was the vitality and sprightly rhythmic energy of what had gone before that stuck in the memory.

The Firebird is the only one of Stravinsky’s ballets that is more often performed as a suite than in its complete form. As with almost everything the composer did, financial motivations should be suspected in his decision to make a suite arrangement of the work. Or were there musical motivations too? It is true that, unlike Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, this ballet can have longueurs when heard in concert. Or at least, the more memorable sections are separated by long passages of what can only be described as mood music.

But if anybody can make a case for the concert performance of the entire ballet, it’s Gergiev. He’s in his element with early Stravinsky, and the performance he led this evening of the ballet was of the highest order. He knows that to make the piece work in concert, it needs to be paced – and there needs to be a symphonic relationship between the various sections in terms of tempi and dynamics. He also makes a point of not over-emphasising the more dramatic music, not slowing down in the build-ups, and never taking the quieter dynamics lower than they need to go. This, plus an intense feeling of concentration and focus from the podium, allowed the orchestra to maintain the atmosphere throughout the work. So, there were no longueurs to speak of, and no day-dreaming about how much more interesting this would be with dancers. In fact, the atmosphere in the hall was electric, and you could see people in the audience sitting up in their seats in rapt attention every time a new section or theme was introduced.

Gergiev has pursued an increasingly diverse musical path in recent years, taking in music from a wide range of countries and eras. But he’s at his best when he’s conducting late 19th and early 20th century Russian repertoire. And, as this evening demonstrated, when it comes to Stravinsky – he’s the daddy.

Gavin Dixon