Valery Gergiev and the LSO drove headlong into the busy Budapest traffic of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite. Scurrying strings, squealing winds and honking brass all inform the ear that we are at ground level. Certainly, the eponymous Mandarin could probably pass the window of temptation in this tale of entrapment, robbery and murder at any height, but ordinary mortals, and particularly tramps and prostitutes, operate better in gravity’s grasp. In this vivid performance, Bartók came over as one of the best composers Hollywood never had. I was reminded of Bernard Herrmann when LSO trombones slid up the jazzy minor 3rd, representing the three tramps who force the prostitute to tempt victims inside. The clarinet’s “decoy game” here wonderfully delivered, depicted the salacious dance intended to reel in the gullible.

Valery Gergiev © Marco Borggreve
Valery Gergiev
© Marco Borggreve

Moments of battery were aided by five percussionists plus timpani. However, it was also interesting to note the colourful contribution of quiet cymbals to the orchestral palate. Anyone even unconsciously aware of the limits of human breath surely felt the tension produced by unbelievably sustained horn notes, possible only by circular breathing or, more likely, superb relay teamwork. 

The story’s mortal dust-up denouement was conveyed through a fierce fugal passage, the first of several moments where the mighty LSO strings made their mark. Their energy spread through the orchestra until punchy brass figures showed what enthusiastic articulation brings to the rhythmic table. This was a fine opener delivered with all necessary sleaze and urgency.

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra for a work composed in Bartók’s final year of failing health: Piano Concerto no. 3. Within the first movement, Bronfman had the opportunity to display a wide variety of textures and touches, from the light opening theme to dense Rachmaninovian chords which, at one point, accompany an orchestral theme. Orchestral touch was also to the fore in one moment which seems to conjure up a glorious free-fall. 

Malcolm Gillies’ fine programme note described the Adagio religioso’s nod to Beethoven’s “Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Divinity from a Convalescent” from his String Quartet in A minor, Op.132. In the movement’s outer sections, which seemed almost free from the rigours of pulse, there was time to note Bronfman’s fine touch at phrase endings. A more furtive scurrying mood informed the “night music” section.

The syncopated bounce of the closing Allegro vivace suggests more rude health than was to prove the case for Bartók. His increasing interest in Baroque counterpoint shone in an ebullient fugato passage which, beginning in Bronfman’s left hand, then right, soon spread through the orchestra. The ability of the piano to allow a counter-intuitive increase of energy as one gets lower was striking as Bronfman approached the home straights. In appreciation of a very warm Usher Hall response, Bronfman honoured Bartók’s late-in-life love of Baroque counterpoint with a delicately phrased and non-ostentatious performance of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor Kk11. Given the density of texture of the three programmed works, this seemed an inspired sorbet of a choice.

102 years on, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring feels as fresh and daring as ever. There always seems something new to notice in this most joyous racket. On this occasion choice of tempo revealed new elements in passages I thought I knew well. There was a beautifully executed rallentando just before the ghostly violin harmonics in the Introduction. This passage also included possibly the quietest muted trumpet note I can recall. “The Augurs of Spring” seemed faster than I’d ever heard it and I enjoyed seeing Gergiev’s relaxed enjoyment of the energy surrounding him, suggesting complete trust in the orchestra. Conversely, “Spring Rounds” seemed slower than I’d heard before and this revealed a new element: that despite being a celebration of season – and therefore necessarily about time – the slowness allowed the music an essential element in ritual: to step outside time into another realm. The heavy drag of the strings here was very powerful and I enjoyed the experience of being stunned by slowness as opposed to, say, explosion.

Explosions were in plentiful supply though, in the midst of which it's impossible not to be impressed by the expertise, not to say courage, of the percussionists – especially timpanists Nigel Thomas and Antoine Bedewi. At the other end of the dynamic scale, I noted another example of the inestimable contribution of the quiet cymbal.

The final, fatal chord of this work is always a tense moment, preceded as it is by a dramatic pause. The gathering growl-into-shriek of the Leader’s violin had a thrillingly primal character as it hurled us towards explosive closure. This high-powered evening closed with a perkily up-tempo encore: the March from Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges.