Gergiev and the LSO Begin a Scriabin Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scriabin and Liszt: Ekaterina Sergeyeva (mezzo-soprano), Alexander Timchenko (tenor), Denis Matsuev (piano), London Symphony Chorus (Simon Halsey: chorus master), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 30.3.2014 (MB)

Scriabin – Symphony no.1 in E major, op.26
Liszt – Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S 125
Scriabin – Symphony no.4, The Poem of Ecstasy, op.54


It is not every day one hears Scriabin’s First Symphony, and that is no bad thing. Valery Gergiev’s exhumation with the LSO was not without interest, but ultimately it is at best a mediocre piece, which long outstays its welcome. That said, the occasional opportunity to hear such a work – Gergiev is performing all of Scriabin’s symphonies with the LSO – is worth taking, even if the performance were not on the level of, say, Riccardo Muti’s Philadelphia recording. The first movement was properly languorous – an almost unavoidable word here – and, yes, ‘perfumed’. It meandered along its way, but one could take solace, not for the last time, in a beautifully-played violin solo from Roman Simovic. Wagnerisms one could spot in isolation, but they lacked the Master’s direction or development. Wagner and late-ish Romanticism made their mark again in the second movement. One sensed that Gergiev might have traced a clearer path, had his head not been so often buried in the score, though by the same token, whatever might have seemed to be the case, it was not his first encounter with the work. That said, awkwardness and novelty, even a degree of originality, came through. But there was nothing here to counter Pierre Boulez’s claim that the most interesting Scriabin lies in his piano music. The third movement glowed and swelled: more like a warm bath than anything more invigorating, but no matter. Brahms, however, this certainly is not. There is perhaps something more traditionally ‘Russian’, even reminiscent of Tchaikovsky (bad Tchaikovsky, though) to the writing of the scherzo. Rhythms were nicely sprung, and a familiar vein of (quasi-)orientalist fantasy was mined to pleasing enough effect. Ridiculous applause marred the pause before the fifth movement, as the soloists walked on. They proved excellent in the finale, Ekaterina Sergeyeva splendidly rich-toned and centred, Alexander Timchenko ardent, tending even toward the ecstatic. Beautiful wind solos, shimmering violins, brass as resplendent as the voices: Gergiev’s forces gave this paean to art a committed performance, the conductor clearly far better suited to Scriabin than, say, to Mahler. The fugal writing still sounded forced, the ending ultimately oddly conventional, but that was not the fault of the performers. It was a pity, especially in what must to most have been an unfamiliar work, that Andrew Huth’s booklet note should have said so little about the music and nothing at all in any detail; there were plenty of words available, but alas they were not well chosen.

Liszt came as a great relief following the interval, all the more so given the excellence of Denis Matsuev’s performance, well supported by Gergiev and the LSO. The opening was taken quicker than usual, as would be the following, thunderous despatch of the Allegro agitato assai section, but both tempi convinced. Matsuev offered from the start a classically Romantic Steinway tone, awe-inspiring in its clarity and its depth; I am almost tempted to use the word ‘glamorous’. One can imagine this going down a treat in Rachmaninov, and if there have perhaps been more searching interpretations, this nevertheless thrilled – not a quality to be taken for granted. Matsuev’s piano-cello duet with Tim Hugh offered a delectable example of the chamber music the composer is erroneously claimed rarely, or even never, to have written; like Wagner, Liszt’s tendency, though not an exclusive one, is to incorporate chamber music into works for larger forces. (Consider how much even of Götterdämmerung may be considered in that light.) The LSO’s woodwind here and elsewhere offered mellifluous support. If the vulgarity of the march transformation was relished rather than mitigated, that is a perfectly reasonable response. And if glissandi may not quite have scintillated as they did with Richter, they were still mightily impressive.

In The Poem of Ecstasy, Gergiev’s habitual moulding was for once not out of place; in a sense, the more narcissistic the better here. (Not quite true, I know, but anyway…) But there was purpose too, amidst the sultry languor. Playing, whether solo or tutti, was exquisite. A welcome air of Debussy stopped one suffocating entirely, but one almost welcomed the prospect of such suffocation. Strings were voluptuous, and the LSO brass excelled itself, not least in Philip Cobb’s excellent, vibrato-laden solos, as ‘Russian’ a sound as one is likely to hear from a non-Russian orchestra. The orchestra veritably shuddered, coming close to explosion. A real organ would have been welcome, but its lack is one of the prices one pays for performances in the Barbican. Nevertheless, this remained an excellent performance, one most likely to be welcomed on CD before long.

Mark Berry

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