Arts: The night the score stood still

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THE LAST three bars of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring go something like this. The "Sacrificial Dance" effectively vaporises in a wispy trail of flute sound; there's a split second's silence; a shriek of piccolo; and one final convulsion. Finish. No two performances of it ever sound quite the same. For instance, to what extent is that piccolo shriek a grace-note to the headlong crash of the final chord? How much to separate them? And how long that preceding silence? A beat-and-a-half in whatever the chosen tempo, says the score. No comma, no pause, just a momentary suspension of disbelief. Momentary? In his intriguing performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Sunday, Valery Gergiev must have held that silence for a full five seconds. Meaning that he literally stopped the clock, froze the frame, re-constituted the score. And yet the preceding music somehow filled the silence, making it audible, logical, justifiable. Just justifiable, a millisecond-from-grotesque justifiable. Stravinsky might even have forgiven him.

He's an extraordinarily potent force, is Gergiev. I don't know of any other conductor working today whose instinctive oneness with the music he conducts can turn even aberrations like this one into believable insights. Such is his conviction, his complete subservience to the spirit that moves the notes, that his way will always feel like the way. Even as the shoots and tendrils of creation sprouted through the time-lapse imagery of Stravinsky's fertile introduction, it was plain that bodily rhythm was to be the prevailing feature of his reading. Impulse and uplift over knock 'em dead brutality. The rush and intoxication of the first spring, the original dance to the music of time. The Philharmonia gave of their keenest and most buoyant rhythms (cracking timpani playing), the sonorities still sprung surprises.

Gergiev's ability to draw an audience back into even the most familiar music and insist they re-evaluate is one of his greatest gifts. In the first half of this programme, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition were exceedingly well hung. One's mind went back to the numerous occasions where Ravel's dazzling orchestrations seemed little more than so much chic window dressing. Here, freshly restored, superbly lit, they acquired a new depth and purpose. Victor Alexandrovich Hartman would have recognised the images once more. Mussorgsky, too. As solo trumpet gave way to dark, grainy strings, his spirit loomed large. So "Gnomus" scurried from the opening promenade, Gergiev once again using the silences to convey the malignant dwarf's unsettling disappearances. A lachrymose bassoon then announced the troubadour, hang-dog saxophone carrying his sad song from way beyond the old castle walls. Gergiev kept the last note hanging pitifully in the air, almost inviting a response. But none came. Every note is a note of substance in a Gergiev performance. His characterisation of the rich Jew, Samuel Goldenberg - the opulent Hebraic theme richly sustained to the full value of every phrase - was a case in point, further serving to intensify the contrast with the poor, mealy-mouthed Schmuyle whose jibbering trumpet was encouraged to stifle his protestations almost as if he dare not speak. And when did we last hear a performance of the "Catacombs" where the echoes of sepulchral brass were so vividly conveyed in the dynamics. From out of that subterranean gloom, the flight of "Baba-Yaga" came as an unusually rude awakening, while "The Great Gate of Kiev" was flung wide enough to allow Boris Godunov himself freedom of the city. Sensationally good.