Gergiev in his Element in Russian Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Balakirev, Glazunov, Rachmaninov Roman Simović (violin): London Symphony Orchestra/Valéry Gergiev. Barbican Hall, London, 19.2.2015 (CC)

Balakirev – Symphonic Poem, Tamara
Glazunov  – Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82
Rachmaninov    –  Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13


Here was a fascinating programme from the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev in his home territory is a mouth-watering concept, although past experience has shown that satisfaction is not always guaranteed. Perhaps that is part of the appeal: not knowing quite what’s coming.

Balakirev’s Tamara is a rarity in the concert hall, but on the strength of this outing it deserves more exposure. The inspiration was a poem by Mikhael Lermontov: a maiden lures male travellers, only to send them to a watery grave in the river. Conducting with his ‘toothpick’, Gergiev sculpted a performance that moved from great mystery (and superb scene-setting) to a transporting, mystical final section.

The Glazunov Violin Concerto is well served on disc but its length of just twenty minutes makes it difficult to programme. The most famous performance is probably that by Milstein, but the likes of Mutter and Vengerov have also recorded it. It is a glorious piece, glowing from within and bursting at the seams with those radiant melodies Glazunov seemed to have ever at his fingertips. Here the soloist was Roman Simović, since 2010 the leader of the LSO. His tone is beautiful, although there was a suspicion of under-projection and the piece needs a little more character from its interpreter than it received on this occasion. Technically, he is excellent – as was to be confirmed in no uncertain style by his encore – and his tone is sweet. But his lower register could be more gutsy and – strange point, perhaps – he’s not very good with rests. When Glazunov instructs him not to play, he seemed to have problems keeping still. He was very restless, very fidgety – and very distracting.

But there was that encore:  Nathan Milstein’s transcription of the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1 in a miraculous reading that showed far more than stunning pyrotechnics. There was an understanding of both the original spirit of the piece, and of how it maps out into this violin extravaganza. Stunning.

The second half comprised Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. There’s a story, perhaps true, that Glazunov conducted the première – and the only performance in the composer’s lifetime – while several sheets to the wind and the result was chaotic. There was no such problem here. This was clearly a well-rehearsed performance, the upper strings supremely together at speed, the brass a wall of magnificence. There was a Tchaikovskian depth of emotion to the long-breathed lines here, the dark side of the piece fully honoured in the first movement so that the Mendelssohnian flickerings of the second movement could make their full mark.

The slow movement, a Larghetto, does seem to have some padding from which not even Gergiev could rescue it, but there was no denying the perfect orchestral control. The finale had a fascinating underlying joyous feel and a wonderful lyric outpouring. Rachmaninov surely dreamt of a performance such as this.

Colin Clarke