We’ve been here before! The Firebird has been a constant in Valery Gergiev’s repertoire – and not just with the LSO, but also with the London Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Orchestra in terms of performances in the capital. But he does the complete score from the inside, and this latest was exceptional, the LSO (just back from Japan with Bernard Haitink) in terrific form, and Timothy Jones was simply wonderful in the horn solos.
From the off there was a focus and vivid narrative, which sustained the whole 45 minutes, a glowing and dynamic account of music that can have its longueurs, but which were fewer here, Gergiev never indulging, or short-changing either, and ensuring a sense of dance. Here were explosions of excitement and shimmers of seduction, and the ‘Infernal Dance’ was daringly fast, demonic by its close, and the final chord at the ballet’s very end was also typical of this omnipresent sense of theatre, Gergiev holding it that bit longer until all the players were ready to give an emphatic conclusion.
The Bartók works had been a little less successful – both on their own terms and even more so given the Stravinsky. Dance Suite (1923) – written to mark fifty years since Buda, Pest and Óbuda had been unified – was on the cautious side if attractively earthy at the beginning with Rachel Gough’s appropriately coarse bassoon solo. And if the ritornellos were likeably dreamy, then the serenity of the fourth Dance was undermined by it not being quiet enough (yet in Firebird there were many triple-hushed pianissimos) and the fierier numbers were constrained – suggesting that both players and conductor needed to have spent more time exploring the potential of the music.
It was similar in the fabulous Piano Concerto No.2, chock-full of amazing and inimitable ideas – enough for several such works. Yefim Bronfman let his transcendental technique loose and sailed through the challenges with gusto, nonchalance even; indeed the outer movements were sometimes a blur although he did yield for shapely melodic turns. In the first movement (with no strings attached) the woodwinds and brass needed to be more present – and punchier – and the ethereal Adagio was a little too restless and lacked otherworldliness, although the spectral middle section came off well and Bronfman did find some magical contacts. The electric Finale, which took a while to launch (normally it is attacca with the ‘shock’ of the bass drum stroke), was equally a little touch and go. Ultimately it was Bronfman who had a personal triumph, and then The Firebird really took off.