As Valery Gergiev’s tenure as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra comes to an end, a flurry of journalistic think pieces inevitably follow, scrutinising what has undoubtedly been a tumultuous relationship. As with outgoing prime ministers and presidents, it will take time to properly understand how posterity will judge Gergiev’s reign. What is sure though is Friday night’s concert afforded the best opportunity to see Gergiev on top form in the solid, 20th-century, mainly Russian repertoire in which he tends to excel.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

The first half strayed from Russian repertoire, with an attractive pairing of Bartók’s Dance Suite and Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major (with its opening motif derived from Stravinsky’s Firebird, which made up the second half). Whilst Bartók’s Dance Suite has quite an episodic feel, it is held together by a recurring ritornello and a finale that brings together the previous thematic material (five dances based on Arabic, Wallachian and Hungarian themes). It doesn’t come across as an overtly patriotic work, it has too much of a rustic, pastoral feel, or rather it should do, the performance felt overly serious at times, and Gergiev’s pauses between movements broke the momentum. Nevertheless, the sheer level of orchestral skill displayed by the players in this vividly orchestrated piece set the tone for the concert.

Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 2 is a notoriously difficult work, despite Bartók’s intentions to write something less challenging, for both performers and listeners, than his First. Whilst he did succeed in crafting a more melodic work, the piece is still replete with rhythmic difficulties, and very complex counterpoint that at the same time is often curiously unflashy. For these reasons it can be unnerving to watch. It is also full of ideas, so much so that it could easily seem slightly incoherent but it seemed to make sense under Gergiev’s baton. Yefim Bronfman was confident from that start, producing a weighty sound, but retaining a sense of the myriad of interweaving lines. Ironically, it’s fair to say that, because of its incredible difficulty, pianists might have some leeway in performing this piece as it would take a great deal of effort and skill to actually spot any mistakes. However, during the clearer passages: furious scales and moments of diatonic harmony, Bronfman was completely precise. Gergiev’s conducting was alert, and the brief moment of respite in the centre, a typical Bartókian ‘night music’ Adagio was nicely controlled. The barnstorming finale was exuberant.

The second half, given over to The Firebird in its complete ballet form, was the highlight of the evening. All sections of the LSO excelled, after what had already been a challenging concert. The opening bars lacked a little intensity, but after that, all tiny orchestral details were attended to. The gorgeous folk melodies had an air of nostalgia and poignancy, and the strings achieved miraculous pianissimi. The “Infernal Dance” was in contrast hysterical and exciting. Gergiev luxuriated in the famous finale, taking things at a slower pace than is common. There was a moment of uncertainty as the piece accelerated towards the climax, as the accelerando was necessarily quicker than normal, but everything came together, including the magnificent LSO brass section to lead to an exhilarating conclusion.