You can’t say Valery Gergiev doesn’t get around. Four concerts in New York over the last week and a half of October, two with the London Symphony Orchestra, one with the World Orchestra for Peace, and another with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra might seem a little like overkill, especially for a conductor as notable for hot and cold performances as for his workload. The LSO, too, have had it difficult for the last few months, with extensive tours through Europe, London concerts with replacement conductors, and now a mini-residency at Lincoln Center. Worse, and very sadly, their principal oboist Kieron Moore passed away on Sunday after a battle with cancer.

London Symphony Orchestra at the Lincoln Center with Gergiev © 2011 Richard Termine
London Symphony Orchestra at the Lincoln Center with Gergiev
© 2011 Richard Termine

You wouldn’t know any of this, though, from the standard of performances on offer at the first of these Avery Fisher concerts dedicated to Brahms. In London, Gergiev has been pairing Brahms with Szymanowksi, a juxtaposition which has not met with universal acclaim (or comprehension), but in New York there is Brahms alone. Frankly, this is a bit much, especially as in this first concert variation was in short supply: the Tragic Overture (1880), the Violin Concerto (1877), and the Symphony no. 2 (1878). Taken individually, these performances ranged from the outstanding to the mediocre, but together nearly two-and-a-half hours of Brahms is heavy going, especially in unremittingly dark performances relying on massive orchestral sound.

What a sound, though. In contrast to the usual inhabitants of this stage, the LSO astonish with their depth of resources in the strings, their roiling vibrato, and their rounded brass. This was especially evident in the Tragic Overture, which was given very deliberate treatment and shaping by Gergiev. This was surprising, given I had expected a much more vigorous, Coriolan-esque approach. Slow-burning it may have been, but the LSO’s febrile tone kept this impassioned and the tension high, despite a touch of structural vagueness.

The Second Symphony received a much more intriguing performance, embracing Brahms’ demons and refusing to give them up. Superficially this might seem the sunniest of Brahms’ symphonies – as if with Brahms, or with any composer, one can separate the happy from the sad – but there are powerful undercurrents running throughout. Furtwängler demonstrated one way of emphasising this, all those years ago, but Gergiev takes a different tack, using vast textures that stay just on the right side of cloying, and eschewing dramatic tempo changes (although not completely).

The opening movement was taut, but not too much so, the inner drive and general sense of direction pointing up the lack of those qualities in the overture beforehand. It might perhaps have settled more clearly on a basic pulse, yet Gergiev still demonstrated an ability to conceive of a long line, conducting in long paragraphs and leaving the music space to breathe. Whilst the need to take the exposition repeat was questionable, especially at generally slow tempi and in such a homogeneous programme, it did give another opportunity to hear the excellent flute work of Gareth Davies. Inner turmoil is usually heralded by the solo horn call that begins the long coda, but it was cavernous playing down low from the violins that struck here, the pay-off for that exposition repeat’s longeurs. The Adagio saw much of the same, unfolding with a heavy heart at steady pace. Such a reading from Gergiev fundamentally relies on the LSO’s strings keeping the intensity going, as they managed here. The third movement, neither a minuet nor a scherzo but much more fluid of form, was given the full Tchaikovsky ballet treatment in its fluttering string passages, though it never lost sight of Gergiev’s broader Brahmsian aims. The ambiguous finale seemed instantly to bring a sense of resolution, with Gergiev at his propulsive, impulsive best and the LSO’s strings finding a lighter tone. Here, though, Gergiev pushed things a little far, with a precipitous slowing down for the second subject wrong-footing the strings, and a positively gaudy dash for the finish line in the coda feeling too unnatural. This was a work in progress, but still a fine and interesting performance.

The Violin Concerto, for which Canadian violinist James Ehnes was soloist, did not quite hit the same heights. Ehnes has a sweet but never soppy tone, and his calm style had the benefit of not emphasizing virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. A probing cadenza (Joachim’s) to the first movement was indicative of a generally fine performance, but until Gergiev launched the finale at a vertiginous speed this was a little routine. That finale, however, showed verve and depth from all forces, especially as the LSO was let off its leash.