LSO/Gergiev – Romeo and Juliet

Symphony in C
Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 [excerpts]

Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Stravinsky deemed his Chicago Symphony Orchestra commission as Symphony in C and informed that the work was neither in the major nor in the minor. It’s a curious piece, neo-classical and objective, yet discursive enough to raise doubts as to whether it is a ‘real’ symphony. It’s also a challenge for any orchestra in terms of ensemble. There were some rough edges in this account, the London Symphony Orchestra playing valiantly in terms of rhythmic acumen but needing more time to turn corners and find more expression. Valery Gergiev drove the first movement, maybe trying to paper up the cracks that suggested more rehearsal time had been needed, but in the process robbing the music of shape and suggesting the ‘quarts and pint pots’ maxim. Some grace informed the second movement Larghetto concertante, but this generally too fast, rather harried performance that didn’t do full justice to a work that needs rather more consideration than was shown here.

But ill-judged tempos and the impression that the LSO was being left to fend for itself (which it can do to a remarkable degree) continued throughout the concert. ‘Fêtes’ (the second of the Nocturnes) was rushed through, the chattering woodwinds scrambling their parts; and with abrupt tempo changes and the three muted trumpets, which should give the impression of being heard from the distance, being far too present, this was a rendering lacking in atmosphere, followed by a lack of allure in ‘Sirênes’, the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus (too many in number, maybe) lacking seductive tones, although the strings (violins helpfully antiphonal) rose to an impassioned climax.

Even on the home ground of Romeo and Juliet (which Gergiev has presided over many times in complete and suite form), there were problems; small ones – ensemble that needed to be fixed internally and tuning and detail doubts – and not helped, again, by tempos that didn’t always give enough time to fully shape phrases. Balances could be crude, too – ‘Montagues and Capulets’ may be about warring families, but here a trombone (note singular) and tuba outgunned all of the strings. And while ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ (the last of this 10-movement, 45-minute selection, convincingly played as a continuous sequence) had genuine emotional impact, nothing had been kept in reserve to really hammer the tragedy home. A couple of earlier movements had been well pointed, though, and Rachel Gough (bassoon) and Gareth Davies (flute) made notable contributions, but other selections lacked a crucial degree of poise, identity and involvement.

The undoubted highlight was the first of the Nocturnes. In ‘Nuages’ Gergiev conjured a refined and inward sound, these clouds were suitably ‘lonely’ (as they are said to be in poetic terms) and with a palpable sense of danger. Christine Pendrill’s eloquent cor anglais contribution added to the compelling ambience (broken slightly by a young girl opening a bottle of water with something of a ‘crack’!), but such inspiration was in short supply elsewhere.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 18 May at 7 p.m.
  • LSO
  • Barbican

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