Let’s hope the time has gone when mid-period Stravinsky was performed with eye-watering astringency and extremes of precious mannerism in an attempt to make it more contemporary, draping the notes in an arch, ironic, chilly avant-gardism – and that seemed to be the line Valery Gergiev was taking in the first concert of the LSO’s Stravinsky series. But he may have gone a little too far in the opposite direction in the sumptuous performance of Mass. Its scale and length flags up its liturgical aptness, with a choir much smaller than the 100-odd voices of the London Symphony Chorus better suited to its restrained austerity – for example, no fancy Catholic emoting at the “Et incarnates” section of the ‘Credo’, the central plank of Christian faith, and just the merest dab of word-painting in “Pleni sunt caeli” in the ‘Sanctus’. Also, wriggle as you may, Stravinsky’s Mass does sound better with boys’ voices on top. Gergiev must be aware of this in the way he kept the women’s expression on a tight rein, but however clipped their wings and crisp their enunciation, you couldn’t help but feel the choral comfort of a sensuous vibrato in the corner of your ear. The clean, non-sensuous and vibrato-free voice of the soprano soloist (Maud Millar) in the ‘Gloria’ seemed to acknowledge this and set up alternative vocal possibilities – and you also got a glimpse of the chant-like flow Stravinsky was aiming to evoke, which didn’t get much of an airing in the chorus’s generally secure but cautious approach. The 10-strong wind ensemble gave the music the remote but fervent religious flavour it needed, with some majestically clear, pungent sonorities.
Gergiev’s sonic generosity paid off, though, in the excellent performance of the Violin Concerto. Intuition is not a word you would associate with this prime slice of Stravinskian neo-classicism – or, really, neo-baroque, since the Concerto grosso
is the model – but Gergiev and Leonidas Kavakos released an unexpected degree of emotion and grace. In the outer movements, there was still that chugging, sardonic bustle, but it came across as an element to be transcended, in the way that it was continually tempered by the finely balanced rapport between orchestra and soloist. Since the latter is on parade throughout the work, there wasn’t much in the way of one playing against the other; you were more aware of each feeding the other their lines. Kavakos did this superbly, intuitively well, in playing that merged and emerged to very satisfying effect. Your ear was constantly beguiled by tactful details – a dash of delicious doubling, a squeeze of extra bitterness to some choice dissonances, possibly even catching references that Stravinsky was unaware of. Also, the chord that opens each movement here seemed to offer a suggestion of narrative rather than a command, which gave Kavakos plenty of space for his charismatic, wry wit. He delivered the sort of playing that kept you on your toes for interesting hooks; and if you wanted to be spun a long – surprisingly soulful – line, then Kavakos was your man in a performance in which every gesture hit home.
The Firebird is core repertory for Gergiev, and for him the heart and soul of Stravinsky, and this complete account sounded like it – brooding, swooning, brilliantly rhythmic and theatrical, although there’s still that nagging feeling that of all Stravinsky’s ballet scores, Firebird needs dancers. The LSO’s magnificent playing see-sawed between Russian fantasy and Hollywood gloss with consummate mastery, the lead-in to the closing pages was a miracle of control and pianissimo playing, and Gergiev’s hands fluttered overtime to honour this mighty, colourful score.