The London Symphony Orchestra’s first tour in Australia in more than 30 years has stirred an almost unprecedented interest. Hardly ever is the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House so overbooked that standing tickets have to be sold; seldom can so many musician colleagues be seen – orchestral players, academics, teachers and students – amongst the audience, and rarely is the Concert Hall so splendidly adorned with the most spectacular flower arrangements available Down Under.

Three programmes of some of the most demanding Russian masterworks from the first part of the 20th century, performed in three days, is a gruelling schedule for the Sydney leg of the tour. But the orchestra and its Chief Conductor for the last ten years, Valery Gergiev, are famously known to excel under pressure. (Talk about gruelling: Gergiev has another 22 concerts in five countries scheduled for the rest of 2014…)

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

The first of the Sydney concerts included two Prokofiev symphonies. These works are memorable even within so many stellar LSO/Gergiev collaborations as a Prokofiev symphony cycle, and its subsequent recording sealed their first formal association many years ago. The concert opened with a whimsical reading of the “Classical” Symphony, almost understated in its mercurial elegance. Right from the opening chord, every phrase, every entry, every musical question and its response was presented in a phenomenally translucent way, heard like this only on rare occasions – not only in Australian concert halls but anywhere around the world. Each voice in the orchestral hierarchy seemed to maintain its clearly audible, essential, yet never intrusive role at all times, as the constantly varying balance between instruments and instrument groups followed the requirements in the score and the conductor’s effortlessly slight gestures on stage.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, often programmed together with the Classical, finished the concert. This is a far less revolutionary work in its musical language than for instance the piano sonatas written in previous years; then again, it was conceived to be a “war symphony”, written during the last winter of World War Two, intended to boost morale and show the heroism of the People. Composed in an improbably safe and restful environment provided by the Soviet State and demonstrating its astonishing attention towards cultural matters in 1944, somewhere between Auschwitz and Stalingrad, it promises hope and screams terror in equitable measures. Its many serene moments are mostly tonal with the Scherzo reminiscent of scenes from the composer’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The climactic pages of the first and last movement showcased the brass players without their sound ever becoming harsh or aggressive, while the most memorable moments brought crystal clear transparency which allowed the barely audible, hushed clarinets to float above the rest of the orchestra, farewelling the slow movement.

How these musicians are able to find a beat amongst the Maestro’s constantly quivering fingers, I find it difficult to understand; but they most certainly do, and in perfect unity. The fluttering hand movements are as much of a trademark of Gergiev’s conducting as the toothpick baton. These may be curious details, evidently true but not necessarily needed (he often conducts without a baton); either way, they have precious little to do with the core of his artistry. In fact, the incredible efficacy of his conducting is beyond the realms of sheer physical gestures. However, it may be observed and perhaps explained by his hypnotic way of conversing with his orchestra. His ways of communication are compelling and reveal a deep artistic collaboration not often perceived at such a high level; a level where the orchestra’s playing and his leadership become one  incessantly shifting and incredibly focused effort to bring out a unique and unrepeatable experience of the work.

The qualities of this partnership became the most obvious in the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, performed in between the two symphonies. It was, as expected, a virtuoso performance full of excellent individual contributions, amongst which especially outstanding was the pensive and improvisatory flute cadenza. Petrushka tempts many a conductor to demonstrate how loud and powerful its musical images can be. This performance was brimming with musical narrative but its expression wasn’t transmitted primarily through volume. The brass players became, as a matter of fact, part of a large chamber ensemble and the volume of strings never covered the wind soloists’ melodies. The unusual instrumentation of the waltz for trumpet and flute accompanied by bassoon was delicately beautiful in its timbre, and at the end of the evening the horn quartet mourned Petrushka’s death with such tender sound that I had to look up to check whether it wasn’t flutes playing by accident. Clearly no detail in this extraordinary score was overlooked.

The LSO and Gergiev thanked the enthusiastic audience with “The Death of Tybalt” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as an encore.