Here was the first concert in a series of four programmes, each to be given on two occasions in the Barbican Hall, entitled “Gergiev’s Berlioz”. For a moment one feared that either the conductor or soloist Karen Cargill must be indisposed, but the authoritative looking figure who mounted the stage to make a pre-concert announcement turned out to be a protestor against Valery Gergiev’s alleged support of the Russian president. It seemed a long time before burly attendants arrived to shepherd the gentleman out of the auditorium, to a mixture of boos and cheers.
Seemingly unaffected by this unscheduled event, Gergiev strode on to the platform to conduct the opening work. How good it was to hear a live performance of Waverley, Berlioz’s official Opus 1, instead of one of the more popular overtures. It’s a well-crafted piece, already typical of the composer in its means of expression and orchestral timbre, and Gergiev’s stirring performance provided a fine start to the evening.
The LSO and Gergiev then gave acutely sensitive and sympathetic support to Karen Cargill’s performance of the six songs that comprise Les nuits d’été. Cargill sang attractively and with impeccable technique, but her response to the music and to the texts of Gautier’s poems seemed rather underpowered. Perhaps this impression was at least partly conveyed as a result of the singer’s poor diction and imperfect French pronunciation. There have of course been some notable British interpreters of this work, but here one yearned for something that was more authentically French in style.
If the LSO wished to suggest a separate and specific identification with Berlioz in the wake of the late Sir Colin Davis’s illustrious championing of him, then what followed was certainly “Gergiev’s Berlioz”. That is not to suggest any idiosyncrasy in the performance of the Symphonie fantastique. It was more an acute response to the score’s colour and depth of expression, with contrasts strongly bought out, for instance in the ‘Scene in the Country’, where the most beautiful woodwind phrasing was succeeded later on in the movement by frenetic climaxes. ‘The March to the Scaffold’ went at a smart pace, with a chilling ‘execution’, and in an intensely dramatic ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’ the LSO, having already produced outstanding playing in the first four movements, achieved still greater heights of virtuosity, with the second violinists unusually permitted to show off their considerable paces at the front of the platform, opposite the firsts. This is my third orchestral concert in succession where first and second violins have been antiphonal. I hope this is a trend that will continue.
This concert will be played again in the Barbican Hall on Thursday November 14.