Prom 59: London Symphony Orchestra/Gergiev

Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev

Royal Albert Hall, 29 August 2007 4 stars

Valery Gergiev

Considering Valery Gergiev's immense stature and partnership with no less than three major orchestras - Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and, most recently, the London Symphony Orchestra, it was no surprise that this Prom was completely sold out. Conducting an all-Russian programme with the LSO, a collective expectancy hung over the Royal Albert Hall as audience and orchestra waited for the Maestro's arrival.

Happily, any rumblings of a difficult relationship between Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra were absolutely absent from this performance, indeed there was a strong impression of mutual understanding and respect. Whether this was due to the fact that orchestra and conductor have found a common language together or merely that the players are terrified to the point of complete concentration and submission (!), it certainly produced the finest ensemble playing I have heard yet from this partnership.

Continuing the Shakespeare theme of this year's Proms, the concert featured two of Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overtures, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Opening with Romeo and Juliet, the audience was held captive by beautifully poised wind playing - surely in the LSO we have the most technically secure and consistently excellent wind section of all the London orchestras - before the dramatic first subject depicting the Montague-Capulet feud. Although the first appearance of the grand romantic love theme of the overture was at a slower tempo than most performances, it is to the credit of Gergiev and the orchestra that the effect did not become overly sentimental, nor did it impede the trajectory. Quite the contrary, the orchestra propelled masterfully through the development section, playing with total precision at all times.

Although written only a year apart, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor is a much darker and more intense affair than the First Piano Concerto, and much more physically demanding. The Georgian-born soloist Alexander Toradze has recorded the complete cycle of the Prokofiev piano concerti with Gergiev (Phillips, 1998) and the affinity between conductor and soloist, as well as with the piece, was evident from the outset. Toradze plays with searing intent, thundering through both the stormy first movement with its colossal cadenza and the unrelenting Scherzo, although there were moments when less of the sustain pedal would have aided clarity. Nonetheless, in one of Prokofiev's more edgy, 'Russian' works, Toradze succeeded in eliciting a range of orchestral colour and percussive effect from the instrument that go beyond the realms of Skryabin and anticipate Kabalevsky. Not to be outdone, the LSO produced an equally turbulent and remarkably full-bodied accompaniment.

My only criticism of the concert was that it was a little too long; the Hamlet Overture, although another faultless performance, could have been easily left off the programme, such was the compelling rendition of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor. Written in 1951, the symphony was Prokofiev's last, and eschews the dissonant friction of the previous two 'war symphonies' for a more pure and simple mood. Once more Gergiev drew a thoughtful performance from the LSO, and produced a fine balance of forces that defied even the Royal Albert Hall's temperamental acoustics. Gergiev's evident understanding of the structural and emotional intent of the symphony was communicated to the orchestra, and the original harmonically unresolved ending, quietly ringing from wistful xylophone and glockenspiel, made for a perfect conclusion.

By Úna-Frances Clarke