The Gambler, Op.49 – Four Portraits and Dénouement
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien – Symphonic Fragments
Oedipus Rex – Opera-oratorio in two acts after Sophocles
Oedipus – Oleg Balashov
Jocasta – Zlata Bulycheva
Creon / Messenger – Evgeny Nikitin
Tiresias – Fedor Kuznetsov
Shepherd – Alexander Timchenko
Simon Callow (narrator)
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 13 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This latest concert in Valery Gergiev’s traversal through Stravinsky, Debussy and Prokofiev brought together an unlikely but well-balanced programme of thoughtful contrasts. It began with a rare live outing for Prokofiev’s 1931 suite from his first mature opera “The Gambler” – actually completed 14 years earlier. The title ‘Four Portraits and Dénouement’ only hints at the ingenuity with which he put together the selection, freely reassembling the music associated with each of the main characters so that the first four movements proceed from a bracing portrayal of anti-hero Alexei, to an indulgent but never sentimental depiction of Grandmamma, a coursing and impetuous evocation of The General, then a darkly expressive portrait of Pauline – her moral stance in the face of the men’s debauchery bringing about the opera’s culmination, powerfully and imaginatively realised here in orchestral terms.
Those present at Gergiev’s often-memorable Prokofiev symphony cycle will know of his credentials in this music, and so it proved here in an account that amply brought out the acerbity but also the sensuousness of the piece. The opera – among the most fully achieved works from Prokofiev’s earlier years – has not been staged in London for over a decade: perhaps Gergiev, who clearly knows how to galvanise the London Symphony in this composer, will mount a concert performance at the Barbican.
Following it with music written (vis-à-vis the opera) only six years earlier, and by a composer near the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, should have proved ideally complementary. In the event, the symphonic fragments André Caplet compiled from Debussy’s incidental music to Gabriele d’Annunzio’swould-be erotic drama “Le martyre de Saint Sébastien” were given a superbly played but expressively inert reading – feigning rather than evincing real passion in the ‘Danse extatique’ and lacking any real catharsis in ‘Le Bon Pasteur’. Right though he was not to have emphasised the music’s religio-mystic overtones, Gergiev seemed unsure as to what this piece does convey. What resulted was an account that certainly brought out the music’s gravely deliberate melodic and harmonic evolution, yet without a corresponding emotional intensity so that it avoids seeming ‘fragmentary’ in the qualitative sense.
From pre-war naturalism and sensuousness to inter-war austerity, and Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex” (1927) which occupied the second half. A work that, in its Latin retelling of Greek drama from a detached, even clinical perspective can seem impressive but remote – something that the present account, forthright but rarely empathetic, did not entirely avoid. The singing was usually but not consistently fine – with Oleg Balashov an eloquent if unassertive Oedipus, his demeanour changing little over the course of the work, and Zlata Bulycheva sounding a little tentative in the harnessing of Handelian poise with Verdian directness as Jocasta. As Creon, Evgeny Nikitin was commanding but conveyed little of the deadpan humour that Stravinsky surely intended, and made a rather unyielding Messenger. Best were Fedor Kuznetsov’s subtle yet capricious Tiresias, and Alexander Timchenko’s eloquent restraint as the Shepherd. Simon Callow gave a convincing performance as the Narrator – neither a camp master-of-ceremonies nor an earnest officiator between performers and audience. The Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus sang with vigour, projecting with ease in the immediate acoustic of the Barbican Hall.
For his part, Gergiev conducted with a due sense of the work’s incisiveness and fatalism, but without much regard for the pathos that, most often latent, comes through at climactic points to remind one that this music does possess an expressive aspect. The LSO brass and woodwinds were on imperious form throughout, and the performance as a whole was projected with forceful unanimity. Impressive though it was, this was not an account that fulfilled the work’s capacity to affect and to move.