LSO / Gergiev, Barbican, London

Rob Cowan
Monday 10 May 2004 00:00
Comments

The startling leap between the tongue-in-cheek urbanity of Prokofiev's First Symphony and the barbed aggression of his Second has few parallels in musical history. The start of last Saturday's LSO concert under Valery Gergiev lulled us into maximum false security with a reading of the First "Classical" Symphony that was trim, often deliberate and properly reminiscent of the composer who inspired it, Haydn. Hardly a prem- onition of what was to come.

Even Prokofiev couldn't fathom his Second, though the structure, a loudly hectoring first movement followed by a theme with variations, is based loosely on Beethoven's last piano sonata. Gergiev made a merciless charge at the braying brass introduction, the strings' response angular and rhythmically fierce, with Neanderthal grunts at the movement's centre led by double basses and tuba. And yet Gergiev's Second was a lot more than theatrical gesturing. The first movement especially, for all its loud mouthing, has a discernible design that Gergiev fully grasps.

The second movement is a dif- ferent world, its opening pages undulating gently in the manner of Ravel. The rest is mostly bustle, except the Larghetto, where the illusion of frozen calm anticipates late Shostakovich. But once on the march, double basses herald a hammering onslaught that makes even The Rite of Spring sound civilised. And how brave of Prokofiev not to end with a crowd-pleasing furore, but revisit instead the tenderness of the movement's opening.

Both the Third and Fourth symphonies grew out of stage works that preceded them, the Fourth from the ballet The Prodigal Son, the Third from the opera The Fiery Angel. Gergiev has conducted both in the pit and in the case of the Third I wondered whether mem- ories of the opera had rather dominated his view of the symphony. The opening could hardly have been more dramatic, whereas the development was breathless, a mass of detail lost in the fray. The slippery scherzo opened with a savage attack, the finale relentless in its energy but too rushed to suggest the movement's epic scale.

Sunday's concert opened with a rerun of the Classical Symphony, followed by the rarely-heard original version of the Fourth Symphony. Unlike the Third, this more classically proportion "first" Fourth never really gels as a whole, sounding arbitrarily constructed. By contrast one senses that the popular Fifth could hardly have been otherwise, and Gergiev swallowed it whole. He drove the first movement hard, the last climax overrun by a screaming tam-tam that sounded like a 747 at touchdown. Heaven knows how anyone follows Gergiev's rostrum antics, but they do, to a man. As with Furtwängler, Gergiev's method may be unconventional but his meaning is perfectly clear. So it was no surprise when the orchestra applauded him as loudly as we did.

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