La mer – three symphonic sketches
L’Arbre des Songes
Daphnis et Chloé
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel
Reviewed: 20 September, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The first concert of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2009/10 season was a French programme; the two classics from the early part of the 20th-century framing a masterpiece from the later part.
Debussy’s La mer featured in Valery Gergiev’s first programmes with the LSO and it’s clearly a work he relishes. This was a spontaneous and hugely exciting performance. The lack of pauses between the three movements added to the feeling of being engulfed by a continuous ‘wave’ of music. Gergiev’s is a particularly muscular approach to Debussy; there was never any doubt of vast elemental forces in action here. At times it was all a little too much; the sheer volume of sound generated at the climaxes of the outer movements was overwhelming. But there was some fantastic attention to detail, the sea emerging out of the dawn mists in the opening movement magically evoked.
Henri Dutilleux’s L’Arbre des Songes, a violin concerto in all but name, asks much of the soloist, demanding great virtuosity in the faster movements with a lyrical, almost spiritual outlook in the slower ones. Leonidas Kavakos had the full measure of these contrasting and shifting perspectives, the faster, fiercer passages effortlessly negotiated, the third movement delicately and poignantly rendered. Gergiev maintained tension throughout this most introspective of works, sensitive to every change of mood. There was though little ‘dreaminess’, Gergiev’s precise, almost-clinical dissection of the score lending an unsettling edge which provided a fascinating performance but maybe not always true to the spirit of the work. The 93-year-old composer acknowledged enthusiastic applause.
Gergiev’s account of Daphnis and Chloé was, like the Debussy, thrilling in its intensity and rhythmic drive; yet his hard-driven approach robbed the dances of much of their sensuousness and poetry. Better things were on offer in ‘Pantomime’ of the final part in which Gareth Davies’s beautifully phrased flute solo proved a highlight. ‘Danse guerrière’ was taken at breakneck speed leading to some untidiness in ensemble, as was the concluding ‘Bacchanal’, and some overloud playing at the climax of the ‘Lever du jour’ almost drowned out the generally excellent London Symphony Chorus. This enjoyable performance could have done with more refinement.