Coherently programmed, this evening of Russian fare with the London Symphony Orchestra was well suited to Valery Gergiev's strengths, tracing a direct line from Balakirev to Rachmaninov. In 1879, self-appointed leader of ‘The Mighty Handful’, whose aim was to promote Russian qualities in music, Balakirev recommended Glazunov as a pupil to Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1897, Glazunov was – disastrously – on the podium when Rachmaninov’s First Symphony was premiered.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

Balakirev’s symphonic poem Tamara helped define the Russian taste for orientalism in music and in many ways paved the way for Rimsky’s Scheherazade, which followed six years later. Based on Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, it depicts the beautiful Tamara who lured unsuspecting travellers to her tower to enjoy a night of passion, only to kill them and throw their bodies into the river below. This should be meat and drink to Gergiev, yet the performance was curiously non-committal, big on volume but lacking in tonal colour in the long, sinuous introduction. The frenzied bacchanale was painted in broad brush strokes without generating the anticipated excitement.

Glazunov was represented by his Violin Concerto in A minor. On a much smaller scale than many other violin concertos, lasting a mere 20 minutes, it has nevertheless enjoyed great popularity through the advocacy of ‘golden age’ violinists Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh. The LSO has a major festival of the violin coming up, with many starry names engaged, but the soloist here was Roman Simovic, familiar to audiences as the orchestra’s leader since 2010. He is a stylish player with a sweet, lyrical sound and his performance of the Glazunov was neatly self-contained. The slow section (Glazunov composed the concerto in a single movement) flowed beautifully and Simovic dispatched the double-stopping and left-hand pizzicato of the finale efficiently, without quite letting rip. Milstein’s transcription of themes from Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz no. 1, allowed Simovic to display demonic virtuosity at greater length in an encore.

After a subdued contribution to the first half, the LSO sprang into life from the very opening bars of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony after the interval. Glazunov – allegedly drunk – made a hash of the première and it bombed with the critics. César Cui wrote: “If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr Rachmaninov's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell.” Rachmaninov required psychiatric treatment to recover his compositional confidence and the First wasn’t played again until after his death. But it’s an effective work, tightly argued, with a thematic four-note motif recurring in each movement, plus Rachmaninov’s favourite quotation of the Dies irae.

The symphony gets off to a brooding, ominous start and the LSO brass and woodwinds sounded the tone of impending doom wonderfully. Instantly, there was much more weight and depth to the orchestra’s sound. The strings really dug into their notes, although there were a couple of scrappy entries. This is music Gergiev clearly believes in and that translated itself to his players. With violins placed antiphonally, this evening the second violins deserved the plaudits, along with violas; their muted playing at the start of the second and third movements provided a featherbed of sound that was beguiling. The finale provided the real highlight. There was plenty of brass swagger in the bombastic march theme at the beginning, noisily urged on by the conductor, while the movement powered to a huge crescendo. Perhaps Cui wasn’t so far off the mark with his “ten plagues of Egypt” dismissal, although not in the way he intended. Dark forces were at work here and the coda, underpinned by impressive tam-tam strokes, had a cataclysmic impact: finally, here was Gergiev at his best.

With speculation mounting about the appointment of his successor as Principal Conductor, there has been little evaluation of Gergiev’s time at the helm of the LSO. Apart from an impulsive, erratic Mahler cycle, he has rarely ventured far from his comfort zone. While I lament missed opportunities to delve into repertoire he wouldn’t necessarily explore with his Mariinsky forces (imagine a Gergiev-led Vaughan Williams cycle), it could be argued he has played to his strengths by focusing on Russian music. This evening clearly demonstrated some of those strengths, yet also displayed characteristic flaws.

***11