Proms 66 & 67 | Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3

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The Independent Culture

Valery Gergiev's hands once again seemed to be providing the vibrato not just for this Prom but the entire season. As they fluttered to life bringing with them the breathy flute and etiolated surrounding texture of Scriabin's early Reverie for orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic seemed to be picking up something they'd dropped the previous night during the second act of Parsifal. Scriabin's little piece had palpitated, climaxed, and gone before you could really appreciate how much like subverted Chopin it really sounded.

Valery Gergiev's hands once again seemed to be providing the vibrato not just for this Prom but the entire season. As they fluttered to life bringing with them the breathy flute and etiolated surrounding texture of Scriabin's early Reverie for orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic seemed to be picking up something they'd dropped the previous night during the second act of Parsifal. Scriabin's little piece had palpitated, climaxed, and gone before you could really appreciate how much like subverted Chopin it really sounded.

Grieg's ubiquitous Piano Concerto stayed a little longer, like an old friend who still knows to call first but not when to call it a day. Gergiev greeted its beloved tunes, like the cellos' second subject, with literally open arms - though with insufficient clarity of beat (the downside of Gergiev's technique, if you can call it such) for immaculate, or even tidy, ensemble. The soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was immaculate, in appearance and pianistic precision. Fresh, too. The opening of the first-movement cadenza was very fresh, very cool, not in the Nordic sense, but rather in the manner of a jazz discovery. Unexpected. Where next? A touch of the Bill Evans.

Gergiev's final destination was the mechanised run-around at the close of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. A great Soviet epic? Gergiev seemed hellbent on erasing the Soviet and epic parts. There was a touch of War and Peace (or rather, just War) about the ice-breaking climax of the first movement, the heavy percussive artillery arriving from nowhere, but the way there was so contentiously hectic (a very brisk andante) as to leave little room for manoeuvre and/or nuance. The overriding impression was sinewy and febrile, without remission or repose. Which is one way. And the end was thrilling, like the Red Army in self-destruct mode. Irony? I think so.

Irony is something Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony don't do. Their woefully underpowered, urbane account of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, gift-wrapped for export, was one of the low points of the season. It takes a special kind of expertise to neuter this symphony, as Litton and his orchestra so ably demonstrated. The problems, easy to identify, have largely to do with characterisation and style. You simply cannot apply the same all-purpose rubatos to Shostakovich that you might to Tchaikovsky.

So much about the manner and means of this performance was inappropriate. The sound was all wrong. Too covered, too warm, too comfortable. Heaven forbid the brass or woodwinds should make a strident, even ugly sound.

Where was the chill, the deathly pallor of the solo bassoons' portent of catastrophe at the heart of the first movement or the shrill demented howling of woodwinds in the scherzo? And what did the timpanist think he was playing - Schubert? If this was a portrait of Stalin, then he's never looked better. Shopping-mall Shostakovich.

Earlier in the evening, Thomas Hampson gave Litton the benefit of his nose for characterisation in a selection of Copland's Old American Songs. What a star. Not only did he draw us completely into their ethos, vividly defining their origins, from fireside to minstrel show and burlesque (and even farmyard in the hilarious "I Bought Me a Cat"), but he had us loving them as if we too had been born singing them. Litton reversed the situation with Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings fielding a section every bit as big as you might expect from Big-D. It had heart and generosity, which is more than JR ever gave us.

Radio 3 will rebroadcast Prom 66 and 67 on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively at 2pm

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