London Symphony Orchestra/Gergiev

Stravinsky: Petrushka

Barbican Hall, 13 June 2007 3 stars


Whilst Valery Gergiev's partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra has thus far divided critics, this concert edged closer to fulfilling hopes of an illustrious collaboration. Even the initially confusing combination of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Debussy came together in an evening characterised by flowing lyricism.

The concert was framed by two works of Stravinsky, opening with Symphony in Three Movements. This late-neoclassical work is less symphonic than it is a concerto for orchestra and the LSO rose admirably to the challenge. Crisply articulated strings maintained a pulsing tension throughout the first movement, well balanced by wind and concertante piano, with percussion interjections that were menacing without overwhelming.

The lilting opening of the second movement was suitably pure in tone, subtle strings underscoring flute and harp's playful conversations, yet without losing the darker subtext that drives to the third and final movement. Rhythmic intensity here echoes of that of The Rite of Spring, but Gergiev and the orchestra successfully complimented Stravinsky's more mature approach to orchestration with a more confident and assured clarity of tone and direction.

Second on the programme was Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No 1 in D major, which was completed in 1917 just before the composer's exile from Russia but did not receive its premiere until 1923. Acclaimed violinist Vadim Repin was the soloist for the evening's performance, and although his style is arguably more subtly virtuosic than that of fellow Siberian Maxim Vengerov - that evening supporting from the audience - his performance was calmly confident, right from the ethereal opening of the work.

This is not a concerto that relies on show-stopping cadenzas or flourishing finishes to impress, but it is still imbued with many musical and technical challenges, which Vadim Repin accomplished with dazzling ease. Although Repin's shimmering vibrato was perhaps too romantic for some tastes, the overall purity of his tone perfectly suited the tender lyricism of the concerto, floating effortlessly in the high registers yet masterfully showering pizzicato where necessary. The orchestra throughout was wholly responsive to subtle shifts in tempo, following conductor and soloist with a fluidity that evoked the very Russian streams from which it is claimed Prokofiev drew inspiration.

Debussy followed the interval, although in this instance an orchestration of three preludes by Colin Matthews. The LSO brought a rich tone and depth to the pieces, but the orchestrations fall just a little short of the subtle nuances of colour and timbre that one expects from Debussy.

For the final work of the evening, there was a return to Stravinsky, namely to Petrushka, the story of a Russian fairground puppet written for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in 1911. The rhythmic figures of the work pre-figure The Rite of Spring which followed two years later, and garnered mixed reception because of some displeasure at Stravinsky's borrowings of popular folk and street songs.

Gergiev's typically fast opening was full of anticipation, which ultimately did not disappoint. The orchestra blossomed under his characteristic flutters and although there were occasional dips in energy, they preserved the clarity of sound. Throughout the evening's performance woodwind played impeccably, here bringing the puppets to life, aided by impressive brass and percussion, whilst strings resounded with joyful exuberance in the dances of the Fourth Tableau, and provided an impressive close to the performance. On the whole, should Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra continue in this vein - and one can only hope they do - there is the potential that this will become one of the most celebrated relationships in the history of the LSO.

By Úna-Frances Clarke