LSO/Gergiev – Scriabin & Stravinsky

Symphony No.1 in E, Op.26
The Firebird

Nadezhda Serdiuk (mezzo-soprano) & Sergei Skorokhodov (tenor)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Valery Gergiev at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouFollowing his Mahler extravaganza, Valery Gergiev returned to the Proms with the London Symphony Orchestra in a more logical pairing of works separated by a mere decade and by composers born a similar span apart, but whose later works were to define wholly dissimilar eras of European music.

Hard to believe that Scriabin’s First Symphony (1900) was only now receiving its first performance at the Proms (though Henry Wood did programme the fourth movement as a stand-alone miniature in 1916 and 1921); even more surprisingly, it seems not to have had a professional performance in London since the composer’s centenary celebrations back in 1972 (does anyone know differently?). Under Gergiev it received an attentive and scrupulously prepared reading, free of mannerisms or over-emphases, yet one where the work’s overall achievement marginally fell short of its ambition.

The 28-year-old Scriabin was evidently out to establish his credentials as a creative artist – the six movements taking in the extent of Russian Romanticism, while adding Liszt and Wagner for good measure. In fact the formal trajectory is less all-encompassing than might be thought: take away the outer movements, and a fairly regular symphony in the lineage of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov emerges. The opening Lento (which Simon Rattle programmed on its own in Birmingham during 1984 under the title ‘Nocturne’) is preludial in nature, anticipating themes to be developed later and enveloping them in an aura more of somnolence than repose. Gergiev caught this to perfection, but the ensuing movement was slightly too leisurely for an Allegro and certainly too reined-in for the ‘drammatico’ marking – its Tchaikovskian emoting just a little flaccid. Conversely, the Lento that follows felt too hard-pressed – Gergiev breezing through its ecstatic outer sections and playing down the quixotic mood changes in-between. The winsome Vivace had deftness and humour (the latter not a quality Scriabin often revisited), while the second Allegro had sufficient rhetoric not to seem short-winded.

The Andante finale is the most problematic movement – Scriabin setting his own panegyric to the greatness of Art in which mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists exchange then combine in verses as rhythmically foursquare as they are melodically simplistic, reminiscences of earlier themes introducing the chorus in a lame fugal episode followed by a would-be-grandiloquent peroration. As with the finale of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, a really intense performance (or recording) can overcome such shortcomings through the unequivocal fusing of means and ends. Nadezhda Serdiuk evinced rather too much of a ‘Slavonic wobble’ but Sergei Skorokhodov summoned undeniable fervency and the London Symphony Chorus sang with gusto. Ultimately, though, it was difficult to avoid feeling that Gergiev’s overly literal approach had failed to infuse this rarity with quite the conviction necessary.

Scriabin is, of course, a pervasive influence on Stravinsky’s The Firebird (more, indeed, than any other Russian predecessor) and it made sense to hear the ballet following the interval. Even had this not been so, the sheer rightness of this performance would have been more than its own justification.

Much of the problem in performing the complete score (but which hardly seems a deterrent, given its ubiquity on present-day programmes) is in finding a viable continuity between its many sections so that diversity does not outweigh overall coherence. In particular, maintaining momentum during the first half – with its predominantly slow and moderate tempos – is never easy, but Gergiev succeeded handsomely in such as an ‘Introduction’ shot-through with pulsating expectancy and a ‘Supplication’ episode whose languor was not for a moment earthbound. Both the ‘Dance of the Firebird’ and the ‘Scherzo of the Princesses’ had the lightest of touches, while the ‘Khorovod’ was unfailingly poetic. The lengthy descriptive sequence that follows was integrated into the whole so that it never seemed an exercise in mindless virtuosity, leading into a scintillating ‘Infernal Dance’ and a ‘Berceuse’ of real pathos, while the ‘Apotheosis’ had a thrilling sense of finality. But then, this was a performance that followed Stravinsky’s score to the letter – witness the offstage quartet of Wagner tubas and the trio of trumpets which entered from the wings near the close – and, in so doing, captured its spirit.

Of course the LSO and Gergiev have, between them, performed The Firebird on many occasions and it would have been surprising had this account not been a success. That it came off so well, however, is something that could never have been anticipated. One was simply lucky to be there on the night.

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