Fluttering fingers and jabbing a toothpick baton, it’s difficult see how an orchestra can follow the beat – any beat – indicated by Valery Gergiev. Yet the London Symphony Orchestra plays for him like demons. It must be in the eyes. Constantly darting, laser-like, from section to section, they cue in soloists, urge on accelerandos and ramp up the dynamics. Under Gergiev’s burning gaze, the LSO carved out a searing Rachmaninov Third Symphony that almost left scorch marks on the Barbican Hall’s wood panelling.

Valery Gergiev © Alberto Venzago | LSO Live
Valery Gergiev
© Alberto Venzago | LSO Live

Gergiev is at his best in Russian repertoire and chose to open the programme with Russia, Balakirev’s second ‘Overture on three Russian Themes’. Balakirev galvanised his composing colleagues into developing a truly Russian style and this overture draws on three folksongs he heard on his travels. Gergiev, a rugged Russian bear himself, ensured Balakirev’s music danced. It was even possible to hear pre-echoes of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird.

Rachmaninov is very much flavour of the moment in London. On the South Bank, the LPO is exploring the composer ‘inside out’ this season, while in the City, the LSO programmes the symphonies and the Symphonic Dances. Of the three symphonies, the Third is the least celebrated. The First has a certain notoriety, due to a supposedly drunken Glazunov on the podium and the waspish critique of César Cui, who likened it to the ‘Ten Plagues of Egypt’. The Second enjoys huge popularity, thanks to its lush romanticism.

Composed at Villa Senar, his house on Lake Lucerne, Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor seems to hark back to his homeland with its Orthodox chant-like stepped phrases at the beginning and its gloomy introspection. Gergiev immediately established that sense of Russian brooding with sonorous lower woodwinds and sweet, yet searching LSO string tone.

Borodin’s Second Symphony was possibly Rachmaninov’s inspiration for the Adagio ma non troppo of the second movement, the tender horn- and harp-accompanied introduction providing a similarly bardic feel before the solo violin steals in. Gergiev’s conducting style, fingers flapping furiously, was perfect for the violin tremolandos here. The finale, which caused Rachmaninov considerable difficulties in composition, has elements of Russian dance, punctuated with his familiar use of Dies irae quotations. A warm horn sound was counter-balanced by splendidly incisive trumpets; this concert was dedicated to the memory of long-serving LSO trumpeter Rod Franks, who was killed in a car accident in July. Gergiev drove home the finale with a charismatic flourish, brass and percussion in full cry.

There had been strong, charismatic playing in the other Rachmaninov work on the programme, which saw Denis Matsuev tackling the Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. Although carefully gradating the dynamics of the opening, Matsuev took these chords incredibly slowly so that the concerto seemed to take on an inexorable quality before it had barely started. Thankfully, Gergiev instilled some discipline, propelling the orchestra on its journey at a flowing pace. Matsuev responded and a rhapsodic approach to the concerto followed. The second movement held a big, romantic sweep, without descending into a wallow, while in the finale, the LSO strings ranged from being fiercely percussive to providing a feather-down bed for the soloist. Matsuev’s playing was occasionally bruising and lacking in tenderness, until the reflective G sharp minor Prelude heaved its gentle sighs as an encore.

****1