This attractive mix of works may have benefitted from being played in the order of Stravinsky / Ligeti-Dutilleux-Ravel. La valse is a cataclysmic masterpiece, a reflection of First World War atrocities, and difficult to follow. On this occasion Valery Gergiev kept the closing bars’ hysteria under wraps; this was a dogged conclusion to a performance that had delivered so much earlier on, aided by deliberate tempos that elicited much detail (not least gurgling lower winds and roulading harps), and was a beguiling broadcast of a glittering society; two-thirds through Ravel delivers a powerful message about wilful destruction, and while this came through in terms of impact and decibels there wasn't quite enough emotional identification.
György Ligeti’s Atmosphères followed, and gripped the attention from the first otherworldly chord. In music that exploits extremes of registers and opens out infinitesimal layers of colour, dynamics and suggestion, this performance, including a breathtaking almost-nothingness from the violas, held the concentration if not always some inopportune coughing.
Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) is something of a featured composer in this current LSO season. Mystère de l’instant (1989), for strings and percussion, is typical of this composer’s hyper-sensitive craft, hypnotically beautiful and passionate music, owing something to Bartók in terms of scoring and intensity, a cimbalom (played by Christopher Bradley) adding both a Hungarian and tangy touch. 24 solo strings is Dutilleux’s designation; here Mystère de l’instant was played by the LSO’s full string complement, seemingly without any authority. Maybe Gergiev decided on ‘safety in numbers’ for there was the odd insecurity as well as plenty of rhythmic pungency and an ecstatic envoi, but maybe the sound was overstuffed in relation to the composer’s intentions.
Petrushka was given in Stravinsky’s 1947 revision. It would have been good to have heard the extravagant 1911 original. As for La valse, Gergiev chose considered tempos to articulate effect, a concerto for orchestra rather than a theatrical experience, yet absorbing on its own terms, and played with enough precision for the odd dropped stitch to really stick out. The middle tableaux, the interior of the drama, were especially fine, and the finale’s parade of characters particularly vivid; solos – not least from flautist Gareth Davies and trumpeter Philip Cobb – were notably characterful. Once again, and at the worst possible moments, some in the audience felt no need to quash a cough, and although LSO Live producer James Mallinson was in attendance, there were no microphones on duty.