Daphnis and Rocky
09/20/2009 - & September 24
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Henri Dutilleux: L'Arbre des songes
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (complete)
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor)
Valery Gergiev (© D.R.)
Nearly two years into his tenure at the Barbican, British audiences are still trying to come to terms with Gergiev conducting non-Russian music. It's the curse of cultivating his unshaven, Russian romantic image, that the moment he wanders away from his native repertoire, people suddenly find his colourful, minimally rehearsed, on-the-hoof music-making unpardonable and disgusting. Aside from major Prokofiev and Shostakovich cycles, one of the most interesting aspects of Gergiev's LSO helm has been his willingness to expand his repertoire. His much derided Mahler season was damned for precisely the same reasons his Prokofiev is lauded. I personally found his Mahler to be, by turns, thrilling, brutal, patchy, precise, odd and revelatory, pretty much how I find him with any composer. It says, worryingly, more about us than about him that we don't mind his style only if the repertoire's Russian.
Still, he is persevering now with French music, specifically showcasing the music of Henri Dutilleux. Sunday night's opening of the new LSO season bookended Dutilleux's L'Arbre des songes, with grand orchestral favourites that play to Gergiev's strengths.
With no baton, Gergiev threw us straight into La Mer, with the quiet murky opening beautifully realised, little flecks of colours shimmering through gradually. The climaxes, possibly too brass heavy, were shattering, yet shaped nicely into the piece. I've heard friendlier, subtler La Mers but none as virtuosic as this, or as well structured. Possibly aided by the Barbican's bright, sand-blasted acoustic, every layer could be heard without Debussy's soundscape becoming clinical or bland. Despite its precision and unbelievable range of dynamics, there was also a real sense of the orchestra let off the leash, with Gergiev looking quite relaxed, trusting the players implicitly.
Relaxed is not quite how I would describe their performance of the complete Daphnis and Chloé, with the London Symphony Chorus' forward, rather unblended sound becoming brittle and unyielding to the lush orchestral surroundings. Some conductors tend to recess the choral writing apologetically, turning Ravel's tribal, earthy, spooky atmosphere into an annoying hum. Much as I applaud any conductor who brings the chorus out as much as this, it was symptomatic of a performance that never put the brake on. Dynamics were even more extreme than in La Mer, yet had no build up. This was no languid, erotic courtship but a forceful proposition. The playing was Brilliant in both senses, dazzling colours from the woodwind, the shimmering and twittering brooklets and birds given full technicolour. This vividness is welcome in at a time when Ravel seems to be interpreted more blandly and cleanly, as if in fear of turning this fabulous score into mere programme music. A bit more dirtiness from the playing would have given the music a bit of mystery and warmth.
This carping is partly due to memories of Gergiev's previous London Daphnis, years ago with the Philharmonia, a performance of equal speed and passion, but a bit more earthiness and build up to climaxes. Tonight had the feeling of a great score being punched out. Thrilling in an insistent sort of way.
Both La Mer and Daphnis and Chloé were played through without any pause for breath between movements, as if in tribute to the joined up four movement structure of Dutillleux's L'Arbre des songes. This was the triumph of the evening. Written for Isaac Stern in 1985 it has some sort of foothold in the violin repertoire today, indeed Kavakos and Gergiev's performances over the world have argued its case well as one of the great concertos of the 20th century. It is a beautiful work, elusive and dreamlike, even without its title, although one can see why Dutilleux was deemed a conservative by the likes of Boulez. Despite its recent composition, its musical DNA is from the 1930s and 40s. There are elements of Berg in the string writing and, with his use of the cimbalom, obvious echoes of Kodaly, yet not a note sounds derivative. Despite playing from a score, Kavakos still gave a spontaneous, lived-in performance, beautifully supported by the LSO. Gergiev, now using a normal baton, ostensibly to keep this complex, ever shifting score on track, threw himself into the piece as if it were Debussy or Ravel. Approval came from none other than the 93 year old composer, himself, his face beaming in the audience. We were privileged: since the death of Madeleine Milhaud two years ago, he is probably the last direct link to the world of Ravel and Diaghilev.
So all in all, a stunning concert, even if the Ravel really was like being tasered. But no two Gergiev performances are the same and maybe Thursday's repeat will allow everyone to calm down slightly. It's a joy to hear this music played with such a splashy, bright and distinct range of colours, and so precisely. A bit of smudging and shading to the palette will make this Daphnis unforgettable.
I am basically a fan of Gergiev's new, unsafe venturing. The copious publicity has him declaring his Dutilleux season to be “a step forward – not something safe.” After Mahler, Brahms and, now, Ravel, the path is now open for Gergiev to show London what how Elgar, Britten or Tippett can be done differently. That will get his critics bickering.
This concert will be repeated on Thursday, only with the Dutilleux replaced by Ravel's Piano concerto for the left hand. The concert was recorded for broadcast.