Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Gergiev

Berlioz, Wagner & Debussy; Verdi, Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky

Barbican Hall, February 22 & 23, 2008 3.5 stars 4.5 stars

Valery GergievWithout doubt among the hottest tickets of the Barbican's Great Performers series, these two concerts brought together the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Valery Gergiev to produce a potent mixture of aristocratic poise and raw passion. These musicians have already produced extremely well-received recordings of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies and it was a heart-felt, fervent and stunningly well-played account of the Pathétique to close the second concert that proved the highlight of their visit.

The first evening was made up of repertoire, all linked to varying degrees with St. Petersburg, that one might not readily associated with the Russian maestro. The opening extracts from Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, essentially a forty-minute selection made up of all the work's orchestra-only passages, were thrillingly realised and performed with all the tonal refulgence you'd expect from the Viennese players. Berlioz's wonderful orchestration came across as fresh and full, even if there could have been a little more in the way of delicacy in the Queen Mab Scherzo. However, the famous love scene was ardently romantic once it got underway and the 'Festivities at the Capulets' was all one could wish for: frenzied, intoxicating and virtuosic. In the final, heart-rending tomb scene - some of Berlioz's most experimentally expressive writing - Gergiev's dramatic instincts were shown to their best advantage as he procured some fantastically committed playing from the orchestra.

Strangely, the even more impassioned strains of Wagner's 'Prelude and Liebestod' from Tristan und Isolde failed to register with quite the same intensity. The cellos were beautifully rapt at the opening and the orchestra's sound seemed infinitely flexible under Gergiev's command – he conducted without a baton. Somehow, though, the tension that defines the 'Prelude' was lacking and, as a result, the release and resolution of the 'Liebestod' didn't have the necessary sense of having been earned.

The programme highlighted the influence first of Berlioz on Wagner and then, with La mer, Wagner on Debussy. The French composer is not someone you'd automatically associate either with Gergiev or the Vienna Philharmonic, and although neither party seemed ideally at home (there was some untidy work in the 'Jeux des Vagues' in particular), it was hard not to get swept along by the playing in the climactic passages. The French coolness which is required for other parts of the work, though, was lacking. The two Strauss encores, too, seemed to me incongruous. In what was ostensibly an intelligently planned programme they seemed like a cop-out, and surely even if the orchestra's biography gives undue weight to 'its legendary status … for its traditional New Year's Day concert', it can get by without having to fall back on this repertory.

Gergiev the opera conductor came to the fore again as Verdi's Overture to La forza del destino got the second concert off to a rousing start. Although the famous melody was taken a little quicker than usual, the quality of the Vienna wind playing meant there was no lack of lyricism; the big tutti statements, meanwhile, were finely controlled and, with the brass on particularly fine form, thrilling.

Yefim Bronfman (Photo: Richard Termine for The New York Times)For sheer barnstorming, finger-breaking virtuosity, though, the performance by Yefim Bronfman of Prokofiev's massive, blisteringly difficult Second Piano Concerto would be hard to beat. There was maybe a slight element of humour missing in the few lighter moments in the first movement, but this was truly titanic playing: resolutely powerful, single-minded and immensely impressive. There can be few orchestras less easy to win over than the Vienna Philharmonic, but several of them looked ready to let their jaws drop as they watched Bronfman negotiate the almost super-human demands of the first movement's cadenza. Gergiev inspired the orchestra into giving more than a simple accompaniment and, as if responding to the challenge set out by Bronfman, they played their part with steely commitment.

This continued into the second half with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony. Gergiev, eschewing a score for a work that's no doubt a fundamental part of his musical make-up, produced a dramatic tension and emotional power in this great work that had sometimes been missing elsewhere over the two programmes. The brass now played with greater bite as well as luminous tone, the wind brought genuine pathos as well as lyrical grace to their solos (the unbearably hushed clarinet solo in the first movement was particularly beautiful) and the strings played out with the mixture of tonal strength and flexibility that is this orchestra's own. Gergiev stretched the pauses and manipulated the tempo daringly but it all seemed natural and dictated by the needs of the work itself. The famous 'non-waltz' second movement might have had a little more delicacy but was leavened with the Viennese players' own innate sense of the dance and the Allegro molto vivace March, taken at quite a speed, was viscerally exciting. However, these were only warm-ups to a performance of the Finale of rare, harrowing intensity and beauty.

Thankfully, Gergiev stuck with Tchaikovsky for the encore: a delicate account of the 'Panorama' from Act Two of The Sleeping Beauty provided just the emotional digestif that was required.

By Hugo Shirley