United Kingdom Bartók, Stravinsky: London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 18.10.2015 (AS)
Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin, Sz.73 – Concert suite
Stravinsky: Le chant du rossignol
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116
This concert was the last to be conducted in London by Valery Gergiev in his role as the LSO’s Principal Conductor. During his almost nine-year tenure of this post Gergiev has attracted much publicity, good and bad, some of it musical and some of it political. But few would deny his status as one of the world’s most prestigious musicians.
He signed off with a programme that showed perhaps his greatest strength – in large-scale twentieth-century scores. His performance of the Miraculous Mandarin Suite at once showed his best qualities. The playing was taut, highly charged rhythmically, the dramatic contrasts and changes of mood strikingly defined. The lurid subject matter of the ballet was subtly conveyed and the chase that ends the Suite was taken at a breathtaking rate – presenting a challenge to the LSO players that they met with confident virtuosity.
It seems a pity that The Song of the Nightingale is seldom played in concert. The music is immediately attractive in its kaleidoscopic, colourful scoring and appealingly characterful, piquant invention – much of the music is written in a charmingly quasi-oriental style. The casual listener would never realise that this symphonic poem was re-worked from an operatic work, Le rossignol. The music has a certain wide-eyed sense of fantastic discovery, and at times Gergiev didn’t allow its natural opulence to flower through pressing a little too hard, but in general his was a finely wrought account of the work, with the quiet, hushed ending superbly managed with great sensitivity.
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is certainly not a neglected piece, and those of us who might have thought that we would get just another hearing of it will surely have been given a surprise by Gergiev’s performance. There was nothing unusual in his interpretation of the work to upset seasoned listeners, but the surprise will have been in the extraordinary vitality of his conducting and the galvanic response of his players. There wasn’t a routine moment, from the atmospheric beginning, then the passion that is later evoked in the ‘Introduction’, the cool, chuckling wit of the ‘Game of Pairs’, the lovely and mysterious ‘Elegia’, the bluff, tongue-in-cheek boisterousness of the ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’ and a thrillingly fast, sharply-pointed finale. This was Gergiev at his absolute best, and it was a fitting finale to his reign.
After a presentation to the conductor by the LSO’s Chairman, violinist Lennox Mackenzie, Gergiev and the orchestra played an encore, no doubt prepared for their imminent visit to the USA. It was perhaps a pity that it had to be the almost inevitable Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 1, but such was Gergiev’s extreme, shamelessly showmanlike manipulation of phrase, and such was the LSO’s magnetic response, that all was surely forgiven. A wildly enthusiastic full house seemed to suggest that this was so.