LSO/Gergiev – The Rite of Spring

Symphonies of Wind Instruments [1947 Version]
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Seven, They are Seven, Op.30
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
The Rite of Spring

Avgust Amonov (tenor)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 29 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Whatever incidental reservations there may have been from the interpretative aspect, it was clear that the London Symphony Orchestra responded willingly to its conductor and provided convincing, committed playing. If there was an overall caveat, it was the absence – at times – of really hushed playing, which impacted upon the Debussy works in particular.

The programme was well-devised, with Stravinsky’s memorial piece to Debussy setting the context for the latter’s music at the outset. Symphonies of Wind Instruments (heard in the Revised Version) was given a perceptive reading, with the contrasted tempos perfectly matched and integrated. The notoriously high oboe writing was delivered without strain and the instrumental playing here, and throughout the evening, was unimpeachable. The precision of attack was remarkable and the piece felt much less episodic than is sometimes the case. The various wind solos were played expressively and the whole was, ultimately, as moving as the composer surely intended.

In La mer, Gergiev emphasised the colouristic, rather than the symphonic aspects (Debussy’s subtitle is ‘Three Symphonic Sketches’), but it was none the less effective in consequence. I would have liked the opening – and other comparable passages – to have been quieter, but the pliant wind and brass solos, supported by a buoyant cushion of strings ensured that the felicities of Debussy’s scoring were well conveyed. Gergiev was at his best in the final ‘stormy’ movement – the second could have been more ‘playful’ – and the tempestuous qualities were undeniably evocative. The conclusion was exhilarating by any standards – the orchestra’s collective virtuosity being a cause for admiration for its own sake.

In some respects the revelation of this concert was the shortest work – Prokofiev’s Cantata “Seven, They are Seven”, a piece rarely performed. Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony (No.1) immediately pre-dates it and it is not entirely beyond credibility to suggest that “Seven, They are Seven” could almost be by another composer. Written in 1917, the cantata is a setting of a Russian translation of a cuneiform transcription found in a temple in Mesopotamia, dating from the third millennium BC. The text deals with – and describes – seven demonic gods whose power reigns over the elements. At one point these beings are conjured forth and their power described. Given that Mesopotamia is present-day Iraq, the description of “Burning whirlwind! Searing sandstorm! They bring times of sorrow! They bring times of vengeance” is uncomfortable, especially in Prokofiev’s visceral musical evocation. As the year of its composition was also the year of the overthrow of the Tsar, there can be little surprise that its first performance was not until 1924 (in Paris under Koussevitsky), and that it remained unperformed in Russia until 1956 (after the death of both the composer and Stalin).

The composer wrote that, following the composition of his ‘Classical’ Symphony, he had the idea of writing “something dimensional and cosmic”, and that “the revolutionary events that rocked Russia subconsciously influenced me and called to be reproduced in music”. With its menacing choral muttering chanting, allied to vivid orchestral depiction, this is music ahead of its time, suggesting something Penderecki might have written in the 1960s. It would certainly not have found favour with Soviet ‘officialdom’. My only previous acquaintance with this score is through Rozhdestvensky’s Melodiya recording with Moscow forces. Gergiev led a truly magnetic rendition, bringing a neglected composition to life. A large orchestra accompanies a mixed chorus and tenor soloist. The latter has the task of initially declaiming the text and then singing it in a cruelly high register.

These demands were encompassed more than adequately by Avgust Amonov. The London Symphony Chorus also responded fervently to music that its members cannot have been at all familiar with. One was struck throughout by Prokofiev’s response to the words – the passage of the conjuring of the spirits, with glittering harps and glockenspiel was but one which demonstrated his acute perception to the setting of text. Conducting with seeming restraint, Gergiev nevertheless persuaded his orchestra and singers to revel appositely in the composer’s invention.

Gergiev’s approach to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune will not have been to all tastes – I’m not sure it was entirely to mine – though it had its own sense of ‘rightness’. This was a voluptuous reading, somewhat as Karajan might have moulded, and, again, the absence of hushed playing was troublesome. But the expressive woodwind playing – primarily from flautist Lorna Magee – was undeniably appropriate. Whether the music should have sounded quite so closely related to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is doubtful, though it was an intriguing link.

Another was the connection between Debussy’s work and the opening of The Rite of Spring. Rachel Gough’s opening bassoon solo in the latter made for a firm liaison between the two. Stravinsky’s masterpiece is all too often presented as a sleek showcase for a virtuoso orchestra led by a jet-set maestro. This was emphatically not so on this occasion. One sensed the score being re-created in all its barbaric and, yes, expressive, splendour. Both the LSO and Gergiev undeniably know the score intimately, but there was not a hint of complacency in its realisation. Sparks flew between podium and players – to the huge benefit of the music. There are some things I do not like about Gergiev’s reading – not least the prolonging and addition of pauses in the concluding ‘Danse Sacrale’ – but they were realised in a thoroughly convincing manner. One sensed a purposeful appreciation of Stravinsky’s music alongside an urgent desire to communicate this. The composer is reported to have responded to a performance of The Rite under Leonard Bernstein with the exclamation “Wow!”. I can imagine a similar response to this LSO performance under Gergiev. It was, in sum, an exhilarating and rewarding experience.

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