Russian was the theme and Russian the temperament in this concert, part of an ongoing series at the Barbican. This particular group of "Gergiev's Russians" consisted of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, in music spanning seventy years of compositional history. The works played tonight offered different perspectives on the idea of musical classicism, a concept central to the formation of twentieth-century Russian music. Each composer was preoccupied in a different way with the classical traditions that preceded them.
The original programme had advertised Britten's Four Sea Interludes to begin the concert. Britten's take on classicism might have contributed much to an evening preoccupied with that notion, but whatever the reason for its substitution, there were no audible complaints as Valery Gergiev strode out and warmed up the purring motor of the London Symphony Orchestra with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture. It didn't take long for the engines to really get going, and hearing the orchestra's full-blooded delivery was like watching a fine sportscar on a lap of Silverstone. It was a rendition distinguished in particular by spirited string playing in every dynamic, from shimmering pianissimo to opulent forte.
No less assured was Prokofiev's spiky, dance-like Piano Concerto no. 3, and in this we had the added pleasure of Denis Matsuev's assured playing. Between them, Matsuev and Gergiev conjured a performance that balanced virtuosity and atmosphere, especially in the second movement's variations. Their approach worked well for this music of schizophrenic contrasts and releases of pent-up energy. The breathless work-up to the end of the first movement had Matsuev challenging the violinists to keep up with his furious pace. In quieter moments one was able to discern beautifully characterised phrases. Prokofiev's angular melodies were played with all the insouciance that the young virtuoso himself must have displayed in the early days of his brilliance, when this concerto was first performed in 1921. Matsuev was welcomed back for an encore: the frivolous filigree of Anatoly Liadov's Musical Snuffbox, played with delicate restraint.
The second half of the concert was given over to Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5. It's a work that has had so much meaning piled onto it over the years since its composition that it is almost best to just sit and try to listen with an open mind. From the despairing leaps of melody in the opening of the first movement to the bombastic finale, the work is still hard to read, full of strange resonances and emotions. Gergiev's interpretation seemed to fall roughly in line with the now generally accepted theory that this symphony is more subversive than the Soviet authorities who first heard it believed. Although the result of the composer's conscious attempt at political rehabilitation following official condemnation of his works in 1936, it is nevertheless full of wry gestures and quotations, especially in the scherzo-like second movement.
Whatever one's opinion of the efficacy of Gergiev's idiosyncratic, fluttery-handed conducting, there was little doubt this evening that he can be a very effective communicator of musical drama. It helped that he clearly knew the symphony inside out – he conducted with complete focus, without a score to fall back on. Pointing up the moments of humour and wilfully crass writing, particularly in the Allegretto, he made the orchestra seem like a puppet in some macabre dance. In the Largo, which was radiant with intense concentration, a more geniune sense of feeling emerged, only to be crushed by a dramatic segue into the last movement. Here Gergiev gave the blaring of brass and crashing of drums a sarcastic edge which seemed to validate the words attributed to the composer in his old age – that this symphony was "like someone being told, 'Your business is rejoicing', and turning away muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing'". The rejoicing of the audience after the tumultuous conclusion, however, was heartfelt and effusive.