T hough the BBC must have wept when Valery Gergiev was oblig-ed to withdraw from A Journey of the Soul: The Music of Sofia Gubaidulina, Tuesday's programme of Stravinsky and Prokofiev was altogether more suitable for his inaugural performance as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Technically demanding, opulently appointed with off-stage players and multiple percussion, brutally loud, rhythmically insistent and laced with pseudo-mythology, this was as spectacular an entrance as any conductor might dream of making, and a veritable prog rock album in the normally sedate field of symphonic music.
As grim as the going occasionally was in this lurid mixture of great, almost-great and decidedly ungreat music, one would have to have a heart of stone not to be just a little seduced by Gergiev's stage presence. But with an orchestra as polished as the LSO, one also has to wonder just what it is that he brings, especially in music as blunt as Prokofiev's head-banging Scythian Suite. Authenticity? Charisma? Or its shallow cousin, celebrity? Ten days earlier, in Gergiev's absence, the LSO played two works by Gubaidulina under one of its bass players, Michael Francis, who supplied a clear beat and a carefully calibrated dynamic framework with none of the gestural eccentricities one associates with top-drawer maestri. The sound was radiant, the ensemble precise. So could it be that the mystique attached to big name conductors has less to do with their ability to organise a performance than the way in which they convey their own personalities?
Thinking back to the great caricatures of Toscanini or Mahler, you could imagine what fun Gerald Scarfe might have with Gergiev's storm-cloud brow, cobalt stubble, rubber spine, rolling, ape-like shoulders, double-jointed arms and seemingly numberless flurrying fingers. Whether conjuring the faintest thread of sound or adding extra issimi to his fortississimi, Gergiev personifies the primordial energy which Stravinsky's rarely heard choral setting of Konstantin Balmont's Zvezdoliki and the Scythian Suite assay. Indeed, it is not at all difficult to picture him running around in a furry tunic, bashing a woolly mammoth on its head, and retiring to his cave for a lo-carb supper, or to imagine that Balmont's portentous harvest rite, which Stravinsky pointedly distanced himself from in later years, prophesied the advent of the only conductor capable of selling a programme of largely obscure early 20th-century music to a capacity Barbican audience.
For the meantime, then, let's overlook the idea that the sole great work in this programme, Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, needs a more dapper, contained, urbane approach than either Gergiev or his equally primordial pianist, Alexander Toradze, could offer, and focus on the suffusion of colour in the chording of Zvezdoliki, the fearlessness of the London Symphony Chorus's first tenors, the violence of the Scythian Suite, the musky tone of the strings, and the darting woodwind and lowering bulk of brass in The Firebird. Whatever it is that Gergiev has, it has had a profoundly galvanising effect on an orchestra whose technical facility can make for some oddly placid performances. No, I would not like to hear him conduct Bruckner, Berlioz or Beethoven. But for Russian blockbusters filled with birds of fire, sun gods, dazzled savages, and wicked ogres, I suspect the LSO has chosen exactly the right man.
The Armonico Consort's Rousseau-inspired production of The Magic Flute at Warwick Arts Centre also drew a capacity audience, albeit one where the average age was significantly reduced. It is often said that this is an ideal introduction to opera, but I've seldom seen children as enchanted by Mozart's Masonic singspiel as they were here.
Thomas Guthrie's deft production, with puppetry, fire-eating, some excellent singing and dancing from the young pupils of the Allesley School of Dance, a sharp-witted translation by Kit Hesketh Harvey, and lovely designs by Roger Butlin, was as remarkable for the easy fluidity of the dialogue as it was for its clever use of space, innovative presentation of the trials by fire and water, and highly entertaining introduction to Papagena (Arabella Nathan). Mark Wilde, a consummate Mozartian, led the cast as Tamino, with Elin Manahan Thomas as a touchingly delicate Pamina, Ronald Nairne a sonorous Sarastro, and Guthrie himself ad-libbing with easy charm as Papageno. Under Christopher Monks, a trim chamber orchestra orchestra sped merrily along, while the trios, quartets and quintets were delightfully balanced. Diary permitting, I look forward to seeing their King Arthur this summer.