Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra were on familiar ground with this Russian programme, due to be as part of their visit to China and South Korea. Scheduling Russian classics hasn't always been a recipe for success with Gergiev – some grim evenings in the Barbican Hall come to mind – but when it works, as here, it’s thrilling.
Bad memories of Gergiev's risible plod through Tchaikovsky's Fifth from last autumn were immediately banished by a refreshingly brisk take on Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Gergiev and the LSO avoided the sombre weight often given to the low-wind opening and carried that freshness and energy into the thrusting music depicting the feuding Montagues and Capulets and the love theme, the latter more sleepy than sensual on its first appearance. The astonishing quality of the playing set a very high bar, though, that the evening never dipped below.
Prokofiev wrote his Third Piano Concerto for his own formidable technique; 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition winner Denis Matsuev was ready for all of its formidable challenges in a performance that dazzled and danced, pianist and conductor mining some darker seams and brittle edges. Matsuev’s effortless spin through the first movement suggested a reading of smooth brilliance, but much more bite emerged in the theme-and-variations second movement: rarely has its curiously unsettled final rumble sounded so disquieting. He picked obstinately at the oddly directionless interlude that prefaces the third movement’s central episode before tearing hell-for-leather toward the work’s conclusion, keeping orchestra and conductor in tow – just. More effortless brilliance – but of a totally different sort – came with Liadov’s delicate Musical Snuffbox, painted by Matsuev with the gentlest of touches in his now-familiar encore.
A gripping account of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony closed the concert. Gergiev demonstrated the heights to which he and the orchestra can rise when they're truly switched on, generating palpable tension in this most anxious of Shostakovich's symphonies. The weight of history hangs over it, being both a pivotal work in the composer’s development and an archetype for the clash of politics and art; sometimes it seems too overburdened with back-story to survive as a purely musical experience. This, though, was a view of the work that reeked of tragedy but somehow emerged triumphant. Some might smell a cop out, preferring to hear the end as a hollow victory rallied through gritted teeth, but surely making the symphony's hectoring conclusion into a convincing affirmation is as difficult to achieve as is the alternative. It wasn't perfect: the development of the first movement could have flowed more convincingly; the Adagio could have scaled greater heights of intensity and some moments cried out for greater flexibility. But here was a rendition of a contentious masterpiece that ratcheted up grim tension to fever pitch, yet found room for affecting solos. China and Korea better brace themselves.