Concert Review: Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony Orchestra

SHOSTAKOVICH Festive Overture
RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 2

Wed, 19 Nov 2014

PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 1
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 5

Thu, 20 Nov 2014

Denis Matsuev, piano
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor

Esplanade Concert Hall

Review by Christopher Cheong

matsuevDespite his fairly long tenure as Music Director with the London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev’s relationship with the orchestra has sometimes been strained, with inconsistent and underprepared performances marring occasionally inspired and brilliant ones. In these two nights, with his compatriot Denis Matsuev (right) as soloist, they brought the music of their country on tour to the Esplanade in a program calculated to dazzle and thrill.

The first night was a more popular program. Shostakovich’s Festive Overture opened with the brass in full ‘Star Wars’ mode, and woodwinds leading the festivities. Denis Matsuev then took a very brisk reading of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, focusing on outdoing the orchestra both in volume and speed. He had a formidable technique, but torrents of notes, many wrong, poured out, drowning out the orchestra’s sumptuous melodies in many parts. There were many moments where he was not together with the orchestra, choosing to charge ahead without any regard to what his fellow musicians were playing.

The second movement was taken at least a third faster than the usual tempo, with Matsuev giving the impression that he was more concerned about getting to the food served during the intermission, and only the violins at the end of the movement saved it from being a most strangely unaffecting performance of this movement.

Blinding accents were served up with a flourish at the end of the opening phrases of the third movement, as the concerto continued with the pedal floored, still firmly focused on intensifying speed and volume.

However, there was a moment right in the middle of the movement, when Matsuev played the famous big tune (second subject) softly, lingering tenderly over the great melody and just making magic, before we returned to earth with the fugato played at a breakneck speed – turning it into a concerto for orchestra, before Matsuev raced the orchestra to the end.

The pianist showed us glimpses of humour and artistry in Liadov’s Musical Toybox but Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King epitomized his approach he took with the concerto. He hit a speed, too fast for even his very formidable technique to cope with, and attempted to destroy the already battered keyboard in a performance that was, ridiculously, even faster and louder than anything that had come before.

gergievGergiev (left) took an expansive approach to the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, lingering on many nostalgic moments. Liberated from the concrete box of the Barbican, the string sound darkened slightly and coalesced to create a smooth, chocolaty tone. Transitions were expertly paced, as episodes transformed smoothly and fluently from one to another. Concertmaster Roman Simovic’s violin brought us into the second movement, as kaleidoscopic colours brought us closer to Los Angeles, where Rachmaninoff was residing, than Imperial Russia. An unusually dark oboe tone was created by Principal Oboist Emanuel Abbühl, ruminating over a bed of luxurious harmonies.

The scherzo section of the second movement was a madcap gallop, with a racing tempo showing off Rachmaninoff’s technicolour palette. The violas, cellos and trumpets provided the churning motor over which the music sparkled and flashed in brilliant colours.

The showcase of the orchestra’s virtuosity continued in the last movement, a particular highlight being the whirling fugue, again, taken at an absolutely insanely quick tempo. The ensemble, with antiphonal violins, just about stayed together, keeping everyone on their edge of their seat, wondering if they’d pull through, and they did. It was a show of remarkable technique and virtuosity from the whole orchestra.

Gergiev waited until the last minute of the symphony before giving a masterclass in orchestral direction: his gestures showing exactly what sound, articulation and attack he wanted. The LSO brass and percussion responded magnificently, as he expertly built the final peroration, layer by layer, bringing the symphony to its powerful conclusion.

The March from Prokofiev’s opera, The Love for Three Oranges served as a sneak preview for the second night’s all Prokofiev concert.

Second Night

prokofiev3In complete contrast to the previous night’s headless rushing, Prokofiev’s First Symphony was well mannered, poised measured and elegantly performed. Whilst peppered with fiendishly difficult parts, the urge to indulge in virtuosity for its own sake was balanced with a careful attention to the grammar of the “Classical” period – which the work was a throwback to. Even in the last movement, taken at Gergiev’s trademark rollicking tempo, cadential points were realised and phrases were neatly turned. The tight ensemble made this swift speed feel even more exciting.

Again, in contrast to the previous night, a better-behaved Denis Matsuev stopped trying to drown out and race the orchestra, but still pressed on urgently throughout Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. The outer movements were more successful, with exemplary solos from the woodwinds, including Chris Richards on clarinet.

Momentum flagged in the second Movement’s theme and variations, before the finale racketed up the excitement – within control this time. Still, the concerto could have done with more breathing room, and much of Prokofiev’s wit and sarcasm was not brought out in this reading. Midway through the second movement, Concertmaster Roman Simovic left the stage, looking quite ill, and Co-Leader Carmine Lauri ably deputised him.

Decibel levels increased in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The orchestra’s sound changed from the previous night’s bright colours to a dark, brooding one. The instrumental blend was remarkable. As Prokofiev the master composer passed musical material around the disparate sections, the Orchestra was one organic, unified instrument. The angular harmonies were anchored by the tuba and built vertically.

The balletic second movement showcased exemplary solo and ensemble work amidst a rollicking tempo before giving way to the desolate sound world of the third movement. The woodwinds and motoring brasses built up a powerful dirge with anguished explosions of sound, before the cellos stole the show, nailing their notoriously difficult leaps and trills at the end amidst an oasis of tranquillity.

The cello quartet brought us into the Finale, with horns chugging away beneath the various clarinets and violins, keeping the music swirling around the sections. A slightly quicker tempo made any hint of a possible triumphant ending to the symphony feel hollow.

After the symphony, out came the fireworks – for a show stopping, speed-record-breaking display of orchestral virtuosity in Prokofiev’s Death of Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet.

Singaporeans rarely have the chance to watch performances by the world’s best, though that has changed in recent years. The two near full-houses, despite the high ticket prices, showed the audience’s eagerness to make use of such opportunities. One can only hope that more such orchestras are brought in, to further build a truly cosmopolitan musical landscape.

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