Gergiev’s Russian Opener to the LSO’s 2014/15 Season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Boris Tishchenko, Prokofiev, Shostakovich. Denis Matsuev (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor) Barbican Hall, London 21.9.2014 (RB)

Boris Tishchenko – Dante Symphony No. 1 (‘Among the Living‘)
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op 26
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op 93

In this concert Gergiev and the LSO were joined by one of the former winners of the Tchaikovsky International Piano competition, Denis Matsuev. It is great to see these Russian artists performing these Russian 20th century masterpieces in London and good also to hear this relatively unfamiliar work by Boris Tishchenko.

Tishchenko was born in Leningrad in 1939 and he was a student of Shostakovich in the 1960’s. He was part of a flourishing literary and artistic community in Leningrad and had a fondness for literature which led him to write a series of symphonies inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Gergiev and the LSO presented the first of the symphonies, entitled Among the Living, which describes the events in Dante’s life before he wrote The Divine Comedy including his meeting with Beatrice, his involvement in internecine faction fighting in Florence, and his exile from the city. The work begins with beguiling charm as we hear Dante portrayed by solo violin – the LSO’s leader, Roman Simovic, played these solos exquisitely – and Beatrice by solo oboe. Tishchenko uses a large orchestra and there are some highly imaginative sound combinations which were beautifully realised by the LSO. There is a scherzo section which was played with a mischievous energy, elements of parody mostly portrayed in the woodwind, and some martial elements which Gergiev worked up into a powerful climax. There were some dark sounds from the double basses at the very end of the work as the poet and Virgil prepare to enter the abyss. Tishchenko composed five Dante symphonies – the second and third deal with the journey through Hell, the fourth deals with Purgatory and the last with Paradise – and he wanted them to be performed as ‘choreographic-symphonic cycle’. The set has never been performed in this form but one hopes that Gergiev might be able to harness the force of the LSO and the Mariinsky Theatre to realise the composer’s vision.

Denis Matsuev is a virtuoso player in the Argerich/Horowitz mould and he can really unleash pianistic fireworks when he puts his mind to it. I thought the Prokofiev C Major concerto would suit him and he certainly did not disappoint in this performance. The figurations of the opening movement were played with a steely fingered virtuosity that was at times quite staggering. He also brought out the grotesque wit and humour in the movement and he played much of the passage-work with enormous freedom and vitality. He was playing so fast I was not convinced he would be able to adhere to the composer’s piu mosso instruction in the coda but he managed it and the LSO’s strings did well to keep up with him. The variations were nicely characterised and I particularly liked the way Matsuev brought out the playful and whimsical element of the second variation. Gergiev did an excellent job ensuring pianist and orchestra stayed in sync and some of the entries with the percussion were timed to perfection. In the finale, Matsuev seemed to throw his entire pianistic arsenal at the work and played in a completely unbridled way. In the slower section he seemed to find the emotional kernel of the work and brought out the sweep and grandeur of the music. The coda was a sensational piece of piano playing with Matsuev giving us a range of dazzling pianistic effects and earning himself a standing ovation.

The concert concluded with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, which received its première nine months after the death of Stalin. The symphony features a recurring four-note motif which is the composer’s musical monogram, derived from the spelling of his name in German musical notation: DSCH. There were some soulful and reflective sounds from the strings at the beginning of the brooding and immense first movement. Gergiev navigated his way seamlessly through the narrative arc of the piece, allowing the music to build to a searing climax. He and the LSO conveyed the sense of elemental terror that pervades the movement – there was a real sense of the fear which must have haunted the composer of hearing an unexpected knock on his door at midnight and not knowing what it might lead to. The second movement is intensely powerful and many people have argued that it is a portrait of Stalin himself in all his Satanic glory. Gergiev and the LSO worked the music up to an infernal cauldron of white heat. The spirit of Mahler hangs over the third movement and Gergiev and the LSO gave us nicely shaped and well-articulated lines and some vivid and contrasting sonorities. The horn calls well executed and the dynamics perfectly calibrated by Timothy Jones. The finale is an extraordinary piece of music – Shostakovich was compelled by the Soviet authorities to write a cheerful ending to the work and he duly obliged but what we hear is surreal and absurdist piece of pantomime. I loved the way Gergiev and the LSO brought out the extraordinary contrasts and musical dislocations in the piece as we moved from genial high spirits, to savagery before we come back to the composer’s own name in the climax.

A great ending to a first rate concert – bravo to all concerned.

Robert Beattie

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