LSO/Gergiev, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

No doubt it is salutary for a critic, used to a privileged centre seat, to suffer occasionally the pains of ordinary punters in the side-stalls of an acoustic quagmire such as the Barbican Hall. But how could one appraise the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra from a stall down to the left of the platform, when one's view was filled by the serried backs of the first violins?

This should not have mattered so much in Richard Strauss's great elegy for German high culture, Metamorphosen (1945), since the 23 solo strings it requires could be seated centre stage. But, as heard, in effect, from behind half the players, the work's intricate counterpoint sounded diffused, and its intensities muted, as though one were listening to a performance from the next room. It was difficult to tell whether Valery Gergiev's tremulous hand signs contributed anything distinctive, or whether these hand-picked players could not have managed quite as well led by their first violin.

Part of the problem was that the platform had had to be built out into the stalls to take the massive forces for Mahler's Symphony No 2 in C minor, "Resurrection". As heard from Row K seat 60, the result was like listening to a stereo recording with one's ear pressed up against the left-hand speaker. Maybe in a sound-space more reverberant and less coarse-grained, Gergiev's slightly stop-go way with the tragic heroics and pastoral respites of the opening movement would have carried through more convincingly.

As if sensing this, he proceeded to press on dramatically from movement to movement without pauses, achieving a genuine frisson of horror in the scherzo. All the same, it was difficult under the circumstances to determine whether the Russian mezzo Zlata Bulycheva was so adrift of the beat, or whether something really did nearly come apart in the apocalyptic tutti, shortly before the superbly trained London Symphony Chorus made its first entry – or whether things just sounded that way.

To judge by the warmth of the applause, those in the centre stalls at least got most of the message. What those seated even further to the side of the hall than your critic were hearing is another matter.

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