The King of the Stars
Scythian Suite, Op.20
Concerto for Piano and Wind instruments
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus

Alexander Toradze (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 January, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Valery Gergiev’s first concert (it should have been the second, but he withdrew from the previous weekend’s Gubaidulina weekend) as the London Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Conductor was clearly a ‘red letter day’ for all concerned, marking not only Gergiev’s accession but also fitting into an upcoming series of ‘Landmark’ events marking the Barbican Centre’s 25th-anniversary. With constantly changing big-screen slides of Gergiev in rehearsal at either side of the stage between the pieces (and an unnecessary projection during the music, which hopefully won’t become the norm) and a sycophantic article about him in the programme, the occasion was almost set to sink under hyperbole before a note had been played. Fortunately, the LSO is the sort of band which seldom fails to rise to the great occasion and this was no exception (although it has to be said that the orchestra’s regular Leader was not in place and the guest-principal cellist, David Cohen, is from the Philharmonia Orchestra).

The programme itself, doubtless designed to ‘showcase’ the orchestra’s corporate power and individual finesse, was a curiously non-ingratiating mix of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Even the main work, a complete performance of The Firebird – rather than one of the suites, any of the three having all the best music – is less than satisfactory as a concert piece, a stop-go affair seldom developing any real musical momentum, and extravagantly scored, too – three harps, four Wagner tubas with few notes to play and three extra trumpets (here standing) for a couple of bars right at the close! Gergiev has certainly championed the complete score, having performed it previously in London with the Mariinsky Orchestra and the London Philharmonic.

“The King of the Stars”, Stravinsky’s mysterious cantata, was composed in 1911 shortly after The Firebird (and Petrushka) and immediately before work began on The Rite of Spring. Dedicated to Debussy (who admitted to being puzzled by it), its subdued and pregnant atmosphere anticipates the other-worldliness of parts of the Rite. Singing in Russian, the men of the London Symphony Chorus did well with the high-flown text and high-lying tenor lines, but one was left with no very strong impression.

As leavening to what would have otherwise been an all-Stravinsky programme, there followed Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. Like all good impresarios or publishers, after a success (albeit a succès de scandale) with the Rite, Diaghilev wanted a quick follow-up on ‘prehistoric themes’ and in 1914 Prokofiev duly obliged with Ala and Lolly – the plot and music distressing Diaghilev – which became Scythian Suite, a byword for orchestral excess. In Gergiev’s hands the most impressive moments were the two inner movements, the furious if here lacking venom ‘The Enemy God and Dance of the Black Spirits’ and the atmospheric ‘Night’. By contrast, for all the beauty of the string-playing and utter surplus of the gigantic conclusion, the two outer movements seemed strangely bland (especially in comparison with memories of the LSO with Rozhdestvensky in this music back in the 1970s).

Bland is not a word to describe Alexander Toradze’s sledgehammer assault on Stravinsky’s Concerto, which, despite its title, also includes double basses and timpani. Toradze delivered steel-tipped pianism. The piano should sue for abuse! Given that the work has a Baroque basis, was it really necessary to employ this level of unrelenting force to crack this particular nut, not to mention the pianist’s floor-thumping pedalling? In the slow movement Christine Pendrill’s glorious cor anglais sounded a note of sanity amidst the all-pervasive brutality, intertwining affectingly with the oboe at the close – but for the rest the sheer coarseness of Toradze’s reading is best forgotten.

Whether or not one prefers the complete ballet, at least The Firebird offered us the opportunity to gauge the likely ‘Gergiev effect’ in a much larger-scale piece. As in the concert’s first half, nine double basses were seated to the left of the platform with antiphonal violins adding an aural bonus, and there was undoubtedly a voluptuous quality to the LSO’s string-sound, some of their quieter playing being particularly beautiful. The individual woodwinds remain exceptional – the principal flute, oboe and bassoon all shining with particular lustre; and David Pyatt offered horn-playing of amazing subtlety and finesse. However, under Gergiev’s fluttering hands, the brass section as a whole touched a cruder note and ensemble was not ideally crisp. Of the performance itself, the best that can be said is that it lived very much for the moment but didn’t really culminate long-term and the apotheosis, taken hurriedly, misfired.

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