In terms of decibels, Stravinsky and Bartók ensured that Valery Gergiev’s tenure as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra ended with a bang, closing brief concert series at Paris’ Philharmonie, the Barbican and New York’s Lincoln Center. Yet, there was little fanfare or ceremony from the world’s press or from the orchestra itself. Other than a presentation at the end of his final Barbican concert, there is a palpable sense that the LSO is breathing a sigh of relief.

Valery Gergiev © Alberto Venzago
Valery Gergiev
© Alberto Venzago

During his eight years at the helm, the inevitable criticisms have been bandied about, revolving around Gergiev’s whirlwind schedule and the feeling that he wasn’t spending enough time here in London. Lack of rehearsal time has led to a sense of routine in some concerts, although others – such as the Sleeping Beauty Prom concert where the LSO seemed to be sight-reading – had an ‘edge-of-your-seat’ excitement… though possibly less exciting for the orchestral players than for the audience!

Yet I’m sure that Clive Gillinson, the LSO’s managing director at the time Gergiev was appointed in 2005, knew exactly what the orchestra was letting itself in for. Gergiev was never going to relinquish the Mariinsky, which he catapulted into the limelight (under its old Kirov banner) in the 1990s. His schedule is crazy. London was always going to play second fiddle.

I’ve loved his conducting for decades. If I listed the top ten concerts I’ve ever attended, Gergiev’s could easily fill half of them: a demonic Shostakovich 4 with the Kirov Orchestra at the Proms in 2002 that is seared into my memory, not least for the incredible silence at its conclusion that seemed to stretch for minutes; a thrilling Scheherazade, Firebird and Daphnis et Chloé with the Philharmonia as part of Gergiev’s Diaghilev Series at the Southbank in 2000; a harrowing Shostakovich “Babi Yar” with the Mariinsky, again at the Proms. Spot the pattern? Yes, all Russian repertoire. It’s what he does best. It was his Prokofiev symphony cycle, guesting with the LSO in 2004, which sparked the relationship (Gergiev had only conducted the orchestra once before, back in 1988), so it’s no surprise that it’s the Russian repertoire which has come off best during his tenure. The 2008 concert performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, subsequently released on LSO Live, was stunning, while his recent Shostakovich 15 was electrifying.

Where Gergiev has strayed from his familiar repertoire, in his 310 gigs as Principal Conductor, the results haven’t always been convincing. A fitful Mahler cycle and some variable Brahms worked less well than his forays into French music. And yet, I wish he’d been more adventurous. Sir Colin Davis tended to field most of the orchestra’s English repertoire but, given Gergiev’s strengths in Shostakovich, I’d have loved to have heard him have a crack at Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. Ignoring Elgar and RVW strikes me as a missed opportunity.

I’m sure Sir Simon Rattle will bring a greater sense of adventure to his LSO programmes, just as I’m sure he’ll speak out on important issues surrounding music education, offering artistic leadership beyond the confines of the orchestra. Gergiev’s done exactly what was expected of him – dashing in to dash off some Russian fare with his trademark fluttering fingers and his toothpick baton. The outcomes have been entirely predictable, so it seems churlish to admonish him for having lived up to expectations as he slinks quietly back to St Petersburg. At least we may get a few more Mariinsky tours now…