Proms Valery Gergiev RAH, London / Radio3

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The Independent Culture
And so Valery Gergiev, famed conductor of the Kirov Opera in St Petersburg, finally made it to his Proms debut on Friday. He arrived with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra - he was appointed its principal conductor last year - and together they made sweet music. Well, not all of it was sweet, but for Gergiev, standing on the podium at the end of the evening and drinking in the adulation, the glamour certainly was.

Swarthy and unshaven, dark hair streaming every which way, he cuts a dashing figure. How the good Rotterdamers see it may be another matter. Though their ensemble was strong, and their playing often sparkled, it was not without its moments of inaccuracy. They seemed like a courting couple; for all the love in the air, and Gergiev's romantic gestures, each side was still adapting to the other's obstinate ways.

Yet they teamed up efficiently for Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto of 1913, withGeorgian pianist Alexander Toradze making light work of the fiendish solo part. A concerto of extremely violent tendencies, it caused Prokofiev himself some cold sweats in performance. Pianists today still regard it with caution.

As a form of musical decathlon for the soloist, however, it was great spectator sport. When at one point a faintly buzzing sound emerged from the keyboard's lower regions, tension increased dramatically. Was this a broken string? Musically, there proved less point in its brash display of energy. The basic impulse, a conflict between notated piano-bashing and tender lyricism, could only be spun out for so long. Toradze coped magnificently, welding the four movements into a unified whole.

Sweeter music certainly enfolded the concerto - like the Prokofiev, music written in those three fateful years before the First World War. In theory this was a splendid idea: a glimpse into the music of the future as it sounded to an imperial world standing blindfold on the edge of catastrophe. Yet in practice the choice of Prokofiev proved a mistake. Debussy's two symphonic fragments from The Martyrdom of St Sebastian had the benefit of being first in the programme. In their chaste serenity, the opening chords were a magical first impression on the mental blank slate that exists at the start of a concert. And there was delightful kitsch in the dance closing Act 1, where burning coals, on which the hero has been forced to dance, turn with an exquisite sense of occasion into fragrant lilies.

But the Prokofiev cast its shadow over the 1910 Firebird ballet music that formed the second half. Though the folksong elements were well presented, Stravinsky's "modern" chromaticism was upstaged by the concerto's barbarities. The three years between the works made all the difference. In 1913, Stravinsky upstaged Prokofiev with The Right of Spring. Would this have been a more effective pairing?

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