LSO/Valery Gergiev/ Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Barbican, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

French feasts are high on the agenda of the London Symphony Orchestra this season: a strand of their programmes under their principal conductor, Valery Gergiev, is devoted to the world of music as seen by Henri Dutilleux, at 93 France's greatest living composer.

Not that you need much justification for such an intoxicating programme of Debussy and Ravel. The orchestra's opening concert a few days earlier had framed Dutilleux's own music with two thirds of this one; they now repeated Debussy's La Mer and Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloé with Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand as centrepiece.

Gergiev, presiding in his inimitable batonless manner – energy concentrated into the twisting, twirling and fluttering of his large hands – brought us interpretations of these much-loved works that were by no means standard. Often the pieces sound sensually expansive, full of Mediterranean lusciousness. Under Gergiev, though, their sound world became oddly suggestive of Prokofiev or even Shostakovich.

The influence of French music upon Russian, and vice-versa, is a perennially fascinating cross-current and it has its place here. Ravel himself stated that when he was having trouble composing the finale of Daphnis he put the score of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade on the piano and "humbly tried to write something similar". But it was not so much Rimsky-Korsakov's opulence that shone out tonight as the glare and glitter of the later composers' Soviet-era finales, the driving rhythms of Shostakovich at his most manic.

As for La Mer, Gergiev virtually x-rayed Debussy's music: each section and instrument seemed highlighted in a pointillist paintbox. This was no symbolist confluence of nature's force and the tides of human instinct (La Mer can be one of the sexiest pieces in the repertoire), but an objective evocation in which the impersonal power of the elements has nearly wiped humanity out of the picture.

The ever-responsive LSO became an orchestra of soloists for the occasion, in the best sense; and Gergiev paced the work to encompass lengthy sweeps from one end of the dynamic spectrum to the other, cranking up the energy to giant peaks out of moments of stillness. In the "Dialogue du Vent et de la Mer" orchestra and audience seemed to hold their collective breath.