PROM 41: Gergiev and the LSO: A Memorable Proms Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 41 Borodin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: Daniil Trifonov (piano); London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2013 (CC)

Borodin: Symphony No. 2 in B minor
Glazunov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B, Op. 100 (Proms Première)
Gubaidulina: The Rider on the White Horse (2002, UK Première)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

Without doubt, this must rank as one of the Proms of the Season. Barenboim’s Ring remains a sovereign achievement, of course, but the combination of the LSO on top form under its principal conductor and with one of the finest pianists in front of the public today, the young Daniil Trifonov, was a winning one.

Borodin’s Second Symphony seems somehow to have dipped out of favour over the last decades, which is a shame, and the LSO and Gergiev set out to reinstate it to its rightful place. The sheer depth of string sound at the opening impressed, but it was the nervous energy that informed the performance that was most notable. The virtuoso Scherzo, so suited to a super-orchestra like the LSO, flashed by while the Trio took us straight to the world of the Polovtsians. After that, the Andante exuded both grandeur and interior statement, perfectly paced and including a superb cor anglais solo (Christine Pedrill) and some supremely sensitive brass playing – with the exception, perhaps, of the opening horn solo, which might be best labelled good if not exceptional. The finale, an all-round virtuoso piece, was notable for its supreme rhythmic awareness. Quite how the orchestra deals with Gergiev’s beat sometimes I know not, but miracles ensue.

It was great to see the Glazunov Second Piano Concerto on the menu, unbelievably making its Proms debut. As, in fact, was the young pianist himself, Daniil Trifonov, born 1991 and prize winner at the Chopin, Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions, taking the Grand Prix at the latter. His recording of Tchaikovsky First (with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) is a winner, as was this Glazunov Second. Written in 1917 and showing precious little sign of it when one considers what else was being composed around this time, it lies grandly in the Russian Romantic manner. Glazunov, a woefully under-recognised composer, delivers his characteristic mix of impeccable orchestration, taste and wonderful melodic flow. A mere twenty minutes in length, its three movements weave their magic economically. Yet the spell is there, and one hopes the precedent has been set for many more Proms performances to come. Trifonov has an astonishing sound, beautiful and perfectly projected. Filigree, which owed much to Chopin, was exquisitely traced, Trifonov a spider weaving a web of pure silver. Chopin was also present in the shadow of the long solo in the Andante slow movement. Yet when heavy chordal work was called for, Trifonov stepped right up to the mark, as he did with double trills and for the light and sparkle of the leggiero passages. Preternaturally even trills were another notable feature of Trifonov’s playing. If the piece at times feels more like piano concertante than full-blown concerto, that is more a reflection of its gentleness than a fault. And an encore we heard a fearless rendition of Guido Agosti’s transcription of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird. Matchless pianism.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Rider on the White Horse, is a segment from that composer’s St John Easter – itself the second part of St John. The horse of the title refers to the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Overtly modernist and yet far more than a succession of gestures, Gubaidulina’s piece presents a frightening, visceral vision. The scoring is expert from all angles, from the silvery, quiet beginning to the orchestral shrieks and full-on onslaughts and chthonic textures. The Albert Hall organ is used to tremendous effect, as is the percussion section and even a harpsichord (whose low register forms part of Gubaidulina’s palette). Any hints of traditional harmonies are systematically destroyed by the percussion. An amazing vision of a Biblical story.

Finally, Mussorgsky’s Pictures. What we hear before a piece is vitally important in how we experience the piece itself, of course, and so it was that after the Gubaidulina it was the more progressive elements in the Mussorgsky that seemed to be in the foreground. Maybe, with this in mind, Gergiev could have chosen another orchestration, one that honours Mussorgsky’s earthiness more? Still, this remained an awe-inspiring reading, with each and every picture individually and carefully characterised. Yet the robust nature of much of the piece was left intact. Every single solo was outstanding, but so was some of the section work – never, surely, have the brass slurs in “Catacombs” been so impeccably delivered. Interesting that trumpet vibrato was used later on in the work. It is highly unlikely this was the result of nerves; more likely a nod to the Russian brass performance tradition – like the French and unlike the English, Russian brass players are unafraid of vibrato. Gergiev seemed to burst the bounds of Ravel’s version of ‘Baba Yaga’ to provide a properly nightmarish vision before launching into a simply massive account of the ‘Great Gate’.

The repertoire, artists and venue all came together on this particular evening to create a memorable Summer experience. Just what the Proms is all about.

Colin Clarke