The LSO in 2008-09: Émigrés, Brahms, Late Style, 1930s British Music and the Exotic

Classical music news: The London Symphony Orchestra announces the 2008-09 season

6 February 2008


The London Symphony Orchestra has announced details of its 2008-09 season at the Barbican Hall. Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev will lead ten concerts of music by composers who went into exile from their homeland, including Stravinsky, Korngold, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartók, plus Act III of Parsifal with René Pape, while President Sir Colin Davis will return for seven programmes including the Verdi Requiem and a series focusing on British music of the 1930s. Christine Brewer will perform Strauss' Four Last Songs as part of a number of late style-themed concerts, the complete Brahms symphonies, piano concertos and violin concerto, and concerts of exotic music conducted by Bernard Haitink and Michael Tilson Thomas complete the season.

There are benefits and disadvantages from having Russian conductors in charge of two of the three big London orchestras. One of the latter qualities is that there is inevitably an emphasis on Russian repertoire, which this year manifests itself in the LPO's exploration of Tchaikovsky with Vladimir Jurowski and the LSO's series of music by émigré composers, most of whom are Russian. Not that long since he performed and recorded the complete Prokofiev symphonies with the LSO, Gergiev is once more doing the First and the Fourth, plus the Fourth Piano Concerto and the First Violin Concerto (played by Leonidas Kavakos, 12 October 2008). Alexei Volodin is the soloist in the piano concerto, and will also play Rachmaninoff's Third and Fourth Concertos in an exciting weekend of the composer's music over three concerts (20-21 September 2008). Rachmaninoff's three symphonies are included in the weekend festival, but it seems a little unimaginative to repeat the (admittedly sublime) Second Symphony twice over two days when many people will want to hear both of the piano concertos with which the symphony is coupled and will therefore have to sit through it twice.

After conducting extracts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet in May of last year, Gergiev will lead the LSO in two performances of the complete score on 21 and 23 November 2008. Prior to this, from 5 to 8 November, the orchestra will provide the accompaniment to a new dance interpretation of the same ballet with the Mark Morris Dance Group, conducted by Stefan Asbury. Again, this seems uninspired to me, though many will be glad to see Gergiev returning to his native repertoire after the mixed reception of his current Mahler cycle. There are other overlaps, too: Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements returns on 7 and 8 May 2009, having been included in the 13 June 2007 concert; The Rite of Spring returns on 27 January 2009, after a dubious rendition with the same forces on 29 March 2007; and even though Bartók's brilliant opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle will be performed by the LSO under Pierre Boulez later in the current season, Gergiev has scheduled two performances with Willard White on 27 and 29 January 2009. While these concerts all have the potential to be exciting, it is a shame that the repertoire is limited mainly to a few composers whose music Gergiev has long been performing in London. More intriguing to me is the performance of Act III of Parsifal on 12 March 2009, which will give us a rare chance to hear René Pape in an opera performance in London. Also of interest is Gergiev's performance of Berlioz's La damnation de Faust on 22 September 2009, which is part of the 2009-10 season but is included in the current season's announcement because it is also part of the Barbican's focus on the singer Thomas Quasthoff, who will play Méphistophélès.

Sir Colin DavisIs Gergiev wise to tread on Berlioz territory with the LSO only a few years after Sir Colin Davis' monumental Berlioz cycle? Time will tell. In the meantime, Davis is back with seven different programmes encompassing the music of three centuries. On 24 September 2008, he will be joined by Sarah Connolly for Elgar's Sea Pictures, coupled with Mozart's Symphony No 38 and Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony. Then on 28 and 30 September, he will be joined by Mitsuko Uchida for Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and Peter Coleman-Wright for Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. These two concerts inaugurate the Heirs and Rebels series, which examines the resuscitation of an English school of composition in the 1930s (though not in much detail, it has to be said). It continues later in the season with Richard Hickox's performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto (played by James Ehnes) and Bliss' Morning Heroes on 7 June 2009 and a repeat of Vaughan Williams' Fourth on 21 June. Avid Verdians will probably be happy that the Verdi Requiem will be performed on 11 and 14 January 2009, with Christine Brewer and a rare London appearance by mezzo Larissa Diadkova. In addition, Davis conducts Berlioz's Te Deum on 22 and 23 February next year, coupled with Richard Goode playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No 18, K456.

Sir Colin also plays a role in Love Brahms?, a series in which all the symphonies, piano concertos and violin concerto will be performed within one season. He conducts the Second Piano Concerto with Nelson Freire on 21 June 2009, the Violin Concerto on 24 May and the Third Symphony on 17 June. Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding leads the First Piano Concerto (with soloist Lars Vogt) on 14 December 2008 and the First Symphony on 18 December, also leading Imogen Cooper in Mozart's C major Piano Concerto, K 503, on 19 October and an exciting programme of Messiaen, Boulez and Bruckner on 8 October.

Mezzo Susan Graham joins Bernard Haitink on 11 and 14 June 2009 for concerts of Ravel's Shéhérazade as part of a series entitled Exotiques which loosely explores the fascination of Western composers with the East (though the second half of the Haitink concerts contain Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and La mer – surely more about French sensuality than Oriental spices). The rest of the series consists of two concerts with Michael Tilson Thomas: Ravel and Debussy on 25 June 2009 and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite on 30 June. Sir John Eliot Gardiner continues his Beethoven cycle with the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies in Feburary 2009, while the other concerts of note tend to include Lang Lang, who joins Harding for the Second Piano Concerto of Bartók on 20 April and plays the European premiere of Tan Dun's Piano Concerto on 21 April.

In all, the London Symphony Orchestra's newly-announced 2008-09 offers high-class musicians performing repertoire in which they are renowned. Nevertheless, there's nothing especially unusual here, and one wonders whether the Gergiev alliance in particular is constricting rather than expanding the orchestra's sights in terms of repertoire.

By Dominic McHugh