Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev

Barbican Hall, 13 May 2007 4.5 stars

Oedipus Rex

If one needed absolute evidence that the collaboration between the London Symphony Orchestra and its new Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev is a thing of greatness, this concert was more than sufficient proof of the suitability of the match. The LSO is now almost completely responsive to Gergiev's occasionally oblique conducting style, and this largely dazzling performance featured their most technically secure playing together to date, proving that when he puts the rehearsal time in, Gergiev is second to none.

This latest instalment in the conductor's series of concerts juxtaposing three of the most revolutionary composers of the first half of the twentieth century - Debussy, Prokofiev and Stravinsky - brought us three works with an unconventional relationship to the theatre.

For starters, Gergiev served up the Four Portraits and Dénouement from The Gambler by Prokofiev (allegedly the conductor's favourite composer). This concert work created from an opera with a troubled performance history was written by the composer from a diverse range of fragments from the score; each of the four portraits of the characters of Alexei, Grandmamma, the General and Pauline was newly composed, rather than lifted directly from the opera's score, and Prokofiev gave the work a new opus number to signify its discrete importance from The Gambler itself.

Gergiev's performance was blistering with tension from the word go. This was no pipe-opener but a reading of equal weight to the other items on the programme. The string and piccolo flourishes of Alexei introduced a mood of the jocular macabre that continued with the semi-joking muted trumpets of the otherwise monumental Grandmamma, giving way to the incessant string and brass forces of The General. The LSO created a more sustained, passionate timbre for the beautiful Pauline movement, while doom and despair arrived with a frenzied account of the Dénouement.

Debussy's incidental music to the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio's play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien of 1911 was also cursed by problems with early performances (largely the censor and the verbosity of d'Annunzio's text), and, like The Gambler, the music is more familiar in a concert suite of 'Symphonic Fragments'. Gergiev worked hard to unveil the architecture of the piece, and there were wonderful moments from Christine Pendrill's solo cor anglais and later from a chamber music-like group of front desk string players. It was interesting to note Debussy using far more brass and percussion than is often the case with him - the gong at the end was haunting - but the performance could have been a shade more sensual, in keeping with Debussy's love of textural nuance.

After the interval came a largely searing account of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. Again, the work is unusual: classed as an opera-oratorio, it combines elements of Handelian choral forms and the vocal style of the nineteenth-century Italian operas of which Stravinsky was so fond. It's also unconventional in featuring a prominent role for a verbal narrator, and this was where the LSO's performance was particularly blessed. Jean Cocteau, the famous poet, novelist and filmmaker who wrote the libretto of Oedipus, was adamant when rehearsing the first performance that the narration should be deftly integrated into the music, rather than separate. Simon Callow pulled this off superbly, jumping in with his narration as soon as the music stopped and interacting confidently with the LSO's blazing trumpet section in his final monologue; and his declamatory style was well suited to the libretto's somewhat artificial tone.

Interestingly, although the soloists were all Russian and were all sporadically guilty of some tortured pronunciation of the Latin text, their vocal techniques gave the piece a warmth that it sometimes lacks. Zlata Bulycheva's Jocaste was outstanding, delivering the obsessively repeated line 'Nothing is proved by the oracles' with a suitably psychotic air; Oleg Balashov (Oedipus) and Evgeny Nikitin (Creon/Messenger) both warmed up after mildly shaky stars to negotiate Stravinsky's almost bel canto lines with lyrical ease; and both Fedor Kuznetsov and Alexander Timchenko made the most of their small roles of Tiresias and the Shepherd, respectively.

The real vocal stars, though, were the Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus. Their barnstorming rendition of the central 'Gloria' was especially striking and, as is often the case with them, belied their voluntary status.

Fifty minutes of Stravinsky at his imaginative best flew by in the twinkling of an eye, proving that Gergiev's appointment to the LSO really could be as legendary as everyone hoped.

By Dominic McHugh