Having heard Valery Gergiev conduct a warmly sympathetic, strongly characterised account of the Symphonie fantastique six days previously I was expecting a similarly acute response from him to Berlioz’s “dramatic symphony after Shakespeare’s tragedy”, but this proved not to be the case.
As a whole the performance of Roméo et Juliette had plenty of energy and generalised expression, but was lacking in subtlety. Gergiev’s use of a tiny baton only two or three inches long looked faintly absurd, and seemed to inhibit his usual wavy but expressive beat (if it can be called that). But communication with his players and singers seemed to be as strong as when he uses no baton at all, and that’s the proof of the conducting pudding. The LSO played with its customary virtuosity, the London Symphony Chorus made an impressively deep-toned sound, and it was a delight to hear the fresh young voices of the 12 students from the Guildhall School of Music who comprised the semi-chorus.
Two of the soloists have small parts in this work. Olga Borodina’s big, slightly wobbly, very Russian voice was effective, and Kenneth Tarver sang eloquently and attractively. There was though a lack of coordination among the soloists. Some time after completing her contribution Borodina obviously surprised Tarver, who was immaculately dressed in white tie and tails, by sweeping past him off the stage. The tenor more politely stayed to the end. Meanwhile, on the other side of the rostrum, Evgeny Nikitin, dressed in a slightly scruffy black tunic, sprawled in his chair with arms crossed, waiting until the last section with apparent impatience, when he made his lengthier contribution in the shape of Friar Laurence’s recitative and aria. It was worth the wait. Nikitin has a magnificent, deep voice and a strong dramatic presence, once he starts singing. His eloquent performance was the high point of the evening. He was a late replacement for Ildar Abdrazakov; it’s difficult to think that Abdrazakov or any singer could have matched Nikitin.
But back to Gergiev. The slower parts of the Dramatic Symphony were realised by him with some expression, but there was a lack of inward feeling, no sense of rapt beauty in the phrasing. When given his head he tended to drive the faster passages hard. It was quite exciting at times, but superficially so, with the result that a certain coarseness of expression prevailed. The ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’ can be transformed into a miracle of quicksilver elegance; under Gergiev it seemed merely to be a gallop. A mixed experience then.