Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Gergiev/LSO: Honour your Russian Master(s)

Konzerthaus, 20/05/2012

London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Sun Young Lee

Stravinsky: Feu d’Artifice, op. 4
Chaikovsky: Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Yevgeny Onegin, op. 24
Chaikovsky: The Tempest (Burya), symphonic fantasy after Shakespeare, op. 18
Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910 ballet score)

On Sunday I went to three concerts, and mention this only – the irony of a Barenboim/Gergiev bookend aside – to note that the third was a contemporary event, which is getting short shrift on this blog at the moment – and later there will be a plug post with some comments on why that might be. For Gergiev and the LSO a briefly sketched report follows the jump simply because it’s one of those weeks.

Seeing my current and erstwhile home teams on the same day brought thoughts about the internationalization of orchestral sound to mind, which is to say that I’ve seen a few comments about this recently and remain unconvinced. The Wiener Philharmoniker couldn’t fail to sound like the Wiener Philharmoniker if they tried and the LSO-ness of the playing in this concert was, if not quite so plainly evident, still something I could readily ID. The trumpets, the quality of the string attack etc. In fact that almost threatened to be a problem as some of the musicians appeared to have forgotten they’d left the Barbican.  

But as with Barenboim earlier in the day, a few quibbles did very little to detract from an excellent, even exceptional, evening. No Firebird pun is intended when I write that this work received one of those incendiary Gergiev-led performances, with a torrent of expressive detail one either devotes a short essay to or says very little about for fear of reducing it. But a ‘next stop, Varèse’ interpretation, I can safely say, which can be taken as approval, while Burya, Chaikovsky’s symphony fantasy on The Tempest (think the Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture reined in), brought Rimsky to mind more than a couple of times, at least in matters of orchestral colouring; the content of the piece however remained irreducibly Chaikovsky’s. The spatialization of Stravinsky’s Feu d’Artifice proceeded thoroughly, with the sparks, again, a matter of limitless timbral contrast.

The one disappointment, though far from an egregious one, was Tatiana’s letter scene with recent winner of the Tchaikovsky competition’s vocal section, Sun Young Seo. If your idea of Act I Tatiana is an upbeat character full of youthful optimism then look no further, though by excising the insecurities and reducing this scene to the one clear-cut emotional state one could question why the character writes a letter at all. Not the most ideal of vehicles for Yeo’s talents, but also a tough aria to perform in concert – and technically there was nothing wrong with it, though her very big but well-controlled vibrato at the top could be more exciting in and better suited to other things. Well-intentioned of Gergiev to be so supportive here but he needn’t have bothered, and that he was no shrinking violet when Yeo wasn’t singing made things quite choppy. Tempi in particular were uneven.

There is, by the way, a Gareth Davies report of these Vienna concerts linked by Alex Ross the other day. So one takes British reserve into account, but seeing things like ‘we do Stravinsky well’ qualified is refreshing because, well, there really is no limit to the Wiener Philharmoniker’s Eigenlob. Anyway, the playing was so outstanding throughout and The Firebird in particular so scintillating – judged even against the high expectations I have for Gergiev in Russian rep – that I gladly relieve him of the qualification. Shame I couldn’t make their Rite on Monday.

Re. the post title, yes I know Gergiev is Ossetian, and I didn’t intend to get a Meistersinger thing going, but that quotation appears on the façade of the Konzerthaus (it was merely Schönerer’s political career that imploded in 1907) and Gergiev became an honorary member of the house on Sunday (pictured, with Intendant Bernhard Kerres and house Präsidentin Therese Jordis). I do believe, incidentally, it has been empirically proven that the longer you live in a German-speaking country the worse your puns get.

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