Denis Matsuev, Kavakos, LSO, Valery Gergiev, Barbican, London


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The Independent Culture

Unveiling plans for his new Mariinsky theatre, vociferously backing Putin over Pussy Riot, and popping up as an improbable Father Christmas on Radio 3, Valery Gergiev has been hard to ignore this week. But his current exploration with the London Symphony Orchestra continues.

He’s presenting the symphonic works of Brahms in tandem with those of the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, whose dates – 1882-1937 – are necessary to place this shadowy figure’s music in the context in which it should be heard.

Born in the same year as Bartok and Stravinsky, Szymanowski didn’t enjoy their luxury of growing up in a vibrant symphonic tradition: Poland’s first professional orchestra was only founded in 1901, and Szymanowski had to look to Russia, France and Germany for his initial inspiration.

He found his own voice thanks to his immersion in Arabic and Polish poetry, and in the folk music of the Tatra mountains; his exotic blend of Oriental mysticism and highland dances found its fullest expression in his Third Symphony (‘Song of the night’), for which Gergiev and the LSO were joined by tenor Toby Spence in the first of this week’s concerts. The great world-sleep hymned by the Rumi poem which Spence intoned was bodied forth in swirling orchestral and choral lines, but it all owed rather too large a debt to Strauss and Skryabin. 

Gergiev could not have chosen better soloists for Szymanowski’s Symphony No 4 - in effect a piano concerto – and for his Second Violin Concerto: Denis Matsuev is one of Russia’s most charismatic young pianists, and Leonidas Kavakos – son of a violinist, and grandson of a village fiddler – possesses a wonderfully Protean technique.

Matsuev made something bright and brilliant of the symphony’s remarkably Bartokian first movement, and brought a coltish energy to the tumultuous finale; Kavakos’s performance was typically commanding in the concerto, which emerged as an eloquent and noble work. But despite this admirable enterprise, I suspect Szymanowski will forever be overshadowed by Mahler, Skryabin, Schoenberg, and Bartok.

By taking his leave of us with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Gergiev unwisely revealed a blind spot, because this music is simply not his metier. I have never seen a conductor more visibly out of sympathy with his material, nor heard a more drably mechanical account of this supremely Romantic work: no drama, no poetry, gratingly crude dynamics – it could have been a first rehearsal.