Gergiev’s Prokofiev Symphony Cycle – Nos. 4 (revised) & 5

Symphony No.4 in C – Revised Version, Op.112
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Hayden Jones

Reviewed: 6 May, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

After the previous night’s generally disappointing performances of the 6th and 7th symphonies, Valery Gergiev was back on top form with these two gripping accounts.

The Revised Version of the Fourth symphony (Op.112) was comprehensively reworked and lengthened from the original version (Op.47). The work still maintains it’s episodic nature (owing to its material being from a ballet, The Prodigal Son) and is more expansive than its earlier incarnation. Gergiev’s performance of the original earlier this week made a strong case for the work. He kept a tight grip on proceedings with swift tempos. This performance of the revision was as convincing.

The symphony’s opening pages with its new introductory motto theme was launched in a determined and confident manner leading to the downward-stepping elegiac theme from the original version’s introduction. Gergiev didn’t linger in these passages, preferring to press the music forward. The orchestra were then plunged headlong into the vibrantly aggressive Allegro eroico, Gergiev driving hard. The episodic structure of the movement with its sudden changes of tempo were all brushed aside with ease as the ensemble expertly navigated its way from gentle lyricism to the music’s more percussive, abstracted shapes. The propulsive, rhythmic closing bars were swept forcefully along to the brassy, abrupt conclusion.

In the Andante tranquillo, Gergiev didn’t let the music’s lyrical beauty spill over into sentimentality. This is one of Prokofiev’s most hauntingly beautiful movements, the LSO woodwinds given plenty of opportunity to tug on the emotional heartstrings. Gergiev’s conducting style was fascinating to watch: his arms and baton-less hands shimmering and caressing the air in order to create precise and beautifully judged rubato. The orchestra responded with split-second precision. The movement’s climax, heralded by the return of the symphony’s first theme, was now treated to the full weight of the LSO’s string and brass sections. Gergiev’s vision was a profoundly moving experience.

The aphoristic yet sinister scherzo had incisive playing from all concerned, and Gergiev had the measure of the finale, Allegro risoluto, with a feast of virtuoso playing from the LSO. The sharply accentuated rhythms moved effortlessly throughout the orchestra. It was unfortunate, however, that the principal trumpet possessed a vibrato so wide that you could drive a Lada straight through the middle of it! If it was Gergiev’s intention to be ‘authentic’ by recalling the Russian style of trumpet-playing from earlier times, he succeeded. The movement pressed on relentlessly towards its thrilling conclusion with stabbing, repetitive trumpets heralding the coda, Gergiev broadening the tempo to add gravitas to this highly accessible and criminally underrated symphony; as good a performance as it is ever likely to receive.

A similar statement could be made about the repeat rendition of the popular Fifth Symphony; that of a few days earlier was definitive. This present one was its equal, the musicians totally absorbed in Gergiev’s terrifying vision of this apocalyptic symphony.

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