John Alley, Catherine Edwards, Elizabeth Burley & Andrew Ball (pianos)
Andrew Marriner (clarinet)
Members of the Mariinsky Chorus
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
LSO/Gergiev – October Revolution
Thursday, June 14, 2007 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
This last concert in Valery Gergiev's journey through the respective outputs of Debussy, Stravinsky and Prokofiev – his first project as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra – brought together three works that hardly fit into conventional programmes; which to not to say that they really went together well here – only that the attempt was at least worth making.
A 21-minute first half, followed by a 40-minute interval, was perhaps unavoidable when programming Les noces before a full-orchestra second half, but the performance itself rather failed to justify the decision. Gergiev's direction, though lacking nothing in incisiveness, tended to iron out those metrical subtleties that give this masterpiece its vitality. A corresponding pathos and humour were in scant evidence, with co-ordination between pianos and percussion was not all it should have been; indeed (and even from halfway back in the stalls), the sonority emanating from the four pianos was less than focussed and lacked clarity, for all that the players were clearly responsive to the exacting ensemble between them.
In that he at least entered into the spirit of the work with his avuncular contribution, Gennady Bezzubenkov was the pick of an otherwise anonymous vocal quartet, but it was Gergiev's ruthless and uncharacterful handling of the piece (the choral tuttis often sounding worryingly akin to Carl Orff!) that sealed the reading's fate.
The second half opened with a comparatively rare outing for Debussy's Première Rhapsodie (though it had no successor), at least in the composer's wonderfully imaginative orchestral version (interesting that he should lavish such attention on a relatively minor work and leave the orchestration of major projects to others). The vestige of a sonata-rondo outline serves to direct the piece's momentum in ways that are anything but rhapsodic, and with Andrew Marriner fully at ease with some tricky solo writing (an over-wrought final flourish notwithstanding) and Gergiev drawing translucent sonorities from the LSO, the performance made one marvel afresh at Debussy's undemonstrative mastery.
The concert ended with a performance (at least the fourth given in London during the last 15 years, so making it not quite the rarity it once was) of Prokofiev's “October Cantata”. This epic treatment of the build-up, taking-place and aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution was intended both to consolidate the composer's standing in the USSR – having recently returned there – and also to commemorate the Revolution's 20th-anniversary in 1937, but its free-wheeling invention was deemed unacceptable and the work languished unheard until 1966. The dubious nature of the actual texts matters little now the period has receded into history, while the unfailing skill with which Prokofiev set Marxist, Leninist and Stalinist dogma proves that words themselves were no obstacle to his inimitable melodic writing.
Not that was this an aspect Gergiev neglected – hence the euphony of the 'Philosophers' and 'Victory' sections – but the success of the piece depends largely on its overall impact, and here too Gergiev was not wanting. Hence the scrunching dissonance of the 'Introduction', the set-piece of 'Revolution' – its massed choral outbursts having a seismic impact, its accordion (Eddie Hesian, Ian Watson, Karen Sweet, Tracey Goldsmith & Owen Murray) and brass-band additions making their presence gleefully felt, and its firearm and crowd effects laminated-on with exemplary precision – and the vastly grandiloquent apotheosis that is 'The Constitution'. More than that, however, Gergiev demonstrated a keen sense of just how effectively the constituent parts fit together – with the brief orchestral Interludes, and penultimate 'Symphony', anticipating and recollecting musical motifs so as to sustain cohesion over the 40-minute whole. A memorable performance, bringing a mixed-bag (in all senses!) of a series to its roof-raising conclusion.
Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 22 June at 7 p.m.