Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op. 44
Piano Concerto No.5 in G, Op.55
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

Alexander Toradze (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 February, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Third Symphony having been tucked away at a Maida Vale concert for the BBC’s Prokofiev cycle, this evening provided the one opportunity to hear an unwieldy but imaginative and still underrated work at a London venue during this 50th anniversary year of the composer’s death. The derivation of almost all its material from the long-unheard opera The Fiery Angel is of less interest than the skill with which Prokofiev fashioned it into a self-contained concert work: not a symphony in the fullest sense, but symphonic in its sustained follow-through.

And Valery Gergiev, whose Kirov production and recording of the opera has certainly helped press its claim on the modern repertoire, responded with alacrity to the restless ebb and flow of the symphony – galvanising the London Philharmonic to some of its best playing in recent memory. Not that the first movement was entirely settled in, witness the hard-pressed build-up to the orgiastic central climax, or the Scherzo’s malevolent outer sections without a sense of string players hanging on for dear life. But the Andante’s dark sensuousness was shot through with the right foreboding, while the formal short-windedness of the Finale was offset by the sheer dynamism of its ideas. Not ideally placed as a concert opener, maybe, but it fitted in well with the rest of the concert.

Especially as it was followed by the fifth and last of Prokofiev’s piano concertos, in which elements of brittle neo-classicism are fused with lyricism no less real for being harmonically rather than melodically driven. Alexander Toradze, back from an often scintillating Third Concerto at last year’s Proms, was clearly out to champion a work that numbers such as Richter and Ashkenazy among its advocates. All well and good, but his lithe passagework in the first two movements was not matched by an especially well-attuned orchestral response – diluting the energy of the opening ’Allegro’ and blunting the humour of the ’Moderato’.

That the ensuing Toccata broke down after 20 seconds focused everyone’s attention afresh, as the movement – a breathless revisiting of earlier material – then flew past at a heady rate. Toradze found space in the ’Larghetto’ to elicit a powerful emotional exchange with the orchestra, while the Vivo’s curiously compelling combination of robust jollity and melting whole-tone harmonies was despatched with decisiveness. A large string complement and the keenness of Toradze’s insights meant that the work appeared as bigger and more challenging than the divertissement it can easily be made to appear, which is just the sort of reassessment that this ’Prokofiev year’ needs.

If Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet is hardly a deserving cause these days, it was good to hear the complete score made as seamless and coherent as here. Gergiev, while not eschewing greasepaint in the more illustrative passages, concentrated on drawing out motivic connections over the work’s three-quarter-hour span. Complementing this was some affecting characterisation in the main set pieces – a lilting ’Khorovod’, a scintillating but not over-driven ’Infernal Dance’ and a soulful ’Berceuse’ – and an underlying sense of action being geared to dramatic development that allied this ostensibly ’old-world’ ballet with the brave new world of those which followed. As one would expect, Gergiev lived every bar and, with the splendours of the Apotheosis vividly unfurled, so did the LPO. How they must wish he could show up every week!

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