We have seen a fair few concert platform departures and arrivals of late. Bernard Haitink signed off from the LPO after a gargantuan period in charge; Richard Hickox, ever-inventive in repertoire, tragically died way before his time. Jiří Bělohlávek has given way to Sakari Oramo at the BBCSO. Latvian Andris Nelsons brought many a Wagner tuba to Birmingham’s CBSO before that other Symphony Hall, Boston, lured him away. Now, Valery Gergiev, hero of St. Petersburg (and Rotterdam, curiously) cedes the Barbican to the laird of the Berliner Philharmonie.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov | CAMI
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov | CAMI

Some of Gergiev's recordings recently have been less than entirely cogent, even the sound less than pellucid. Yet what a scrumptious programme Gergiev, with his LSO employers, chose for the delicious exit: maybe too rich for some, but for me, pure heaven. A Bartók sandwich: and as the tasty filling, the most glorious, underplayed Stravinsky imaginable: his Chant du Rossignol.

This was the work whose initial sketches actually heralded the three great Diaghilev ballets. And whose Oscar-Wilde like romance of the ‘true’ Nightingale whose voice saves the Emperor – and thus the nation – from death led Stravinsky himself to rank it his most beauteous work to date (even Rimsky heard the first drafts and approved). Gergiev – in feverishly attentive alliance with the composer – prised out such wonderful timbres, in woodwind, in tuned percussion, in harp, celesta et al., it would be churlish not to salute his and the LSO’s achievement. He is always inspirational.

Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin has its own fairy-tale content. It’s more bumptious and sinister than the subtle, evocatively varied The Wooden Prince, which followed both it and Bluebeard’s Castle (the last not staged till 1918). It can sound rather like Firebird’s evil Kashchey duetting with Borodin’s Prince Igor.

Gergiev is ever a master of red-tongued fire music; and he larded it with a good wealth of Magyar nastiness. The story, or at least the interpretation, is from playwright Menyhért Lengyel (1880-1974). Perhaps one ought to attend more to these Hungarian Schriftsteller, from turn of the century poet Endre Ady via the inspired prose children’s writing of Ferenc Molnár (The Paul Street Boys) to the many inspired sources of Kodály and Kurtág.

And so to the final Concerto for Orchestra – though lilting encores by Dvořák and others assured a rapt audience of a memorable bowing-out. Bartók’s concerto is actually quite tricky to piece together. Was this perfect? Gergiev’s salient flaw here, one felt, was to overegg the significant pauses which – while they do lend import – actually here gratuitously unsettled the natural sequence. Yet where the departing Gergiev showed himself the patent master, for me, was that he brought out the thematic interrelations that lurk, copiously, beneath the ostensibly four or five movements in this, one of the composer’s four final masterpieces before his tragic, untimely New York death, from leukaemia aged a mere 64, in September 1945. 

Archiform it may be (as Jan Smaczny’s invariably instructive notes reminded us), but it’s also a fascinating undertow of interweaving juicy segments – Stravinsky-like if you like: a clementinene fused with a golden canteloupe, a karpouzi (one of those rouged, pip-filled water melons) merging into guava and kiwi fruit and lychee: like the Viola Concerto, it’s that full of fruity goodness. And Gergiev acted like a master-builder, piecing the musical and structural Lego together before our very eyes and ears, like a well-designed train set.

Perhaps, after those noble Parsifalian sorties and mouth-watering explorations of Russian opera - and yes, even Soviet era repertoire - with which the wizard from Leningrad has held us in thrall, this was not necessarily maestro Valery’s most enthralling moment of all. Yet this miraculous trilogy was enough to make us hope – fervently – that Gergiev won’t evanesce, but will be back soon to delight us – and surprise us with the speakling and new: perhaps even in a brand-new venue.

****1