LSO/Valery Gergiev – Prokofiev’s Classical & Fifth Symphonies – Denis Matsuev plays Tchaikovsky

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Piano Concerto No.2 in G, Op.44
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Denis Matsuev (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 September, 2014
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: LSO Live / Alberto VenzagoThe second of the LSO’s pair of concerts featuring Denis Matsuev was billed as “Revolutionary Russians”. This slightly stretched the point since the remainder of the five-part series comprises music by Rachmaninov, Balakirev, Glazunov (as well as more Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky). Of these only Shostakovich merits the description revolutionary. Nonetheless this was a generally excellent concert culminating in a blazingly committed performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony played as though the orchestra’s collective life depended on it.

In 2008 Gergiev and the LSO gave a complete Prokofiev Symphony Cycle at the Edinburgh Festival. On that occasion the ‘Classical’ was the weak link, sounding under-rehearsed and lumpen. This was very much better, the playing consistently polished with a flying finale. Only the first movement disappointed, and slightly pedantic, though the detail was all there. Thereafter all was well with a rich inner string sound in the slow movement and the violins’ high line elegantly floated. The ‘Gavotte’, which in Edinburgh had sounded as though danced by two cautious polar bears, was perfectly crafted, Katherine Woolley (presumably the Philharmonia’s Katy of that name), the subtle first-horn here, and the concluding Molto vivace positively took wing with every note in place.

Denis Matsuev. Photograph: www.cami.comTchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto deserves the occasional outing although any claim that it is the equal of the First is plainly nonsense. The composer, possibly in the light of Siloti taking the pruning shears to the work, clearly had a soft spot for it. The bowdlerised version which appeared in print four years after Tchaikovsky’s death contained all of Siloti’s changes and cuts, and was for long the version by which the piece was known. In 1955 the original expansive version was published.

Whether Matsuev was the ideal pianist for the task is a moot point. He certainly has the notes firmly under his fingers, an advantage in a music containing cascades of double octaves, but there is a relentless, hyperactive quality to his playing which is either very, very loud or caressingly soft with not much in between. It all sounded a bit like Reizenstein’s wicked parody of the ‘romantic piano concerto’ as performed at Hoffnung’s concerts. In fact, much the most appealing part of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in the original slow movement with its extended opening violin solo, quite beautifully played by Roman Simovic, which sounds almost Elgarian. Tchaikovsky was absolutely right to object to Siloti’s cuts here for the unusual ‘piano trio’ within the movement (the violin is then joined by a cello, ideally played by Tim Hugh, and then the piano) contains some of the best music. With the finale though we were back to unremitting bluster, played flat out by Matsuev and devoid of any tongue-in-cheek quality it can have: it was extremely wearing as though one were trapped on a manic musical treadmill.

Matsuev offered an encore, one of the gentlest pieces, ‘May’, from Tchaikovsky’s cycle The Seasons, music which is also used in the ballet Onegin. It came as welcome balm after the Concerto’s barnstorming finale.

As to Prokofiev 5, this was quite simply the best performance which it has yet been my good fortune to hear. It could be argued that it was unduly ‘in your face’, too wide-screen, but, with a flowing speed in the opening movement and formidable forward drive in both the motoric scherzo and exuberant finale, it hung together, moving ever onwards and completely avoiding any hint of the pomposity which can afflict some interpretations.

When he took over the LSO, Gergiev made it clear that he wanted to work on the string sound. He has succeeded. The inner parts in the Symphony’s slow movement were of a richness and focus one seldom hears. More importantly, one sensed an absolute certainty of direction, a reading which knew from first note to last where it was going and one where all the constituent components fell into place. The wind soloists were of such corporate excellence that it would be invidious to single out one particular player. In the right music – as here – Gergiev and the LSO are well-nigh invincible. On this form the LSO has nothing to fear from any other orchestra.

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