Rarely can the lurch between the sublime and the ridiculous have been quite so marked as this. The gulf across the interval was staggering, with the searing intensity of octogenarian Sofia Gubaidulina’s Fachwerk before it followed by Valery Gergiev’s torturous death-by-Tchaikovsky after it; all the concentration of one totally absent from the other.
There are few clues from the title (meaning ‘framework’) to the powerful experience that unfolds from the Gubaidulina. This 2009 composition is a concerto for the bayan, a relation of the accordion and with an astonishing range of colour and tone. The dark sound of the instrument has an instant gravity; a few chords and I was hooked. Gubaidulina scores for a small string ensemble with a percussion section including marimba, chimes and tam-tam; the latter is used to gripping and coruscating effect towards the work’s conclusion. There’s something profoundly spiritual here; the tone shifts between an awed naivety and a cleansed wisdom which brought me, a definite atheist, closer to an understanding of what an intensely religious experience must be like. Geir Draugsvoll’s playing never dipped in concentration and the strange physicality of his instrument (the writhing of the expansions and contractions of the ‘squeeze box’) only added to the disarming nature of the work.
Before it had come a plodding reading of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, punchy and weighty but never sparkling. Occasionally, sections of the LSO drifted apart in moments of ill-coordination, surely because Gergiev’s characteristic right-hand fluttering gave little for the players to fix onto. This sounded like a read-through rather than a performance.
Perhaps the cumulative strain of performing this programme five nights straight (four in Germany then this London date) was responsible for weariness and routine in the LSO's playing in the two symphonies. The series has been marketed as “Gergiev's Tchaikovsky”; aptly, for the responsibility was his for the horror that followed. He appeared barely interested, producing an utterly shapeless account of Tchaikovsky's tightly argued symphony. The Andante cantabile, so often a highpoint in a successful performance, became an excruciating experiment, painfully drawn out to the point of head-in-hands boredom. At least the funereal pace quickened for the ‘Valse’, and the genuine ambiguity of the finale's turn to jubilation might have signalled an interpretation of depth, had it not capped a reading of such tedium. No point went by without labour and the impression was of a conductor on autopilot.