Dear Pliable, Thank you for your article on Gergiev and the LSO. It’s time this was out on the table. Richard Morrison’s startling article in October’s BBC Music Magazine is a timely reminder that those who know, and those who care, should be taking stock of Valery Gergiev’s stewardship of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Why? My first concerts with the LSO reach back to 1962. I still have the treasured programme for Pierre Monteux’s 88th Birthday Concert (April 1963), at which he performed Beethoven’s 8th and 9th Symphonies - deeply moving, and anyone who owns recordings of Kertesz’s Dvorak and Solti’s early Mahler (I was there for his shattering Mahler 2nd) will have a very good idea of the orchestra’s sound at the time, its brilliance and its virtuosity.
Others will disagree, and I have heard wonderful performances from the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras over the decades, but for me the LSO has always been the best band in town, even if I was not particularly inspired by Tilson Thomas and Abbado at the time. But the frequency of concert-going increased significantly over the last decade with Sir Colin Davis as Principal Conductor, and in order to guarantee my seats at unmissable events, I became, and have remained, a Friend of the LSO. However, we can already look back on Sir Colin’s tenure as a Golden Age, and his recent appearances, and those of colleagues such as Bernard Haitink, are a painful reminder of what has been.
Forty-six years of aural memory devoted significantly to the LSO is no small act of loyalty, but I am now finding it tested to destruction since Gergiev took over as Principal Conductor in January 2007. So what happened?
The courtship was full of promise, as anyone who attended Gergiev’s Prokofiev Symphony cycle and knows the recordings will recall. He brought startling intensity and steely brilliance to this uneven set of works, shocking and enthralling with the industrial soundscapes of the 2nd Symphony, for instance. It was very exciting and promised much.
Apart from the crass promotional stunts (video screens in the Hall), Gergiev’s honeymoon concerts in the Spring of 2007 demonstrated fascinating juxtapositions of repertoire, Stravinsky’s ‘King of the Stars’ set against Prokofiev’s ‘Scythian Suite’; Stravinsky’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Winds’ set against the ‘Firebird’. Here were both blistering brilliance and exquisite nuance. Similarly, Stravinsky’s ‘Symphonies of Wind Instruments’, Debussy’s ‘La Mer’, Prokofiev’s ‘Seven They are Seven’, Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ constituted a programme in which sparks flew in all directions. La Mer might have been too wild and storm-tossed, and the Prélude inhabited Scriabin’s fevered imagination, but it would be difficult to imagine a more shockingly primeval Rite.
However, I had already expressed my concerns about the potential of this relationship on a Gramophone blog at the start of Gergiev’s contract, citing the following reasons. During Sir Colin’s tenure, we had been treated to complete cycles or significant individual works by the following composers: Beethoven, Berlioz, Britten, Bruckner, Dvorak, Elgar, Handel, McMillan, Mozart, Sibelius, Smetana, Verdi and Walton in outstanding performances, supported by excellent recordings. My musical memory is full of wonderful occasions, with Sir Colin and the chameleon virtuosity of the LSO matching precisely the appropriate tonal worlds of this diverse range of music: brilliance and exquisite nuance in Berlioz, mighty Bruckner, slavic energy in Dvorak, profound nobility in Elgar. We know this. Add to this mix the inspirational visits of Bernard Haitink. Who could possibly forget his astonishing rethinking of the Beethoven symphonies, glorious Bruckner, profound Mahler and ravishingly refulgent Richard Strauss? This was the LSO as it had never been in the past. And consistently.
There will be some who may have felt that under the aegis of these conducting giants the old buccaneering LSO was no longer the gleaming, sharp-fanged creature of yore, but for those of us with a more mittel-europaisch sensibility and ear, the LSO was at its ripest, its most flexible and virtuosic, a master orchestra at the peak of its form, able to match the best in Europe. I heard Haitink conduct Bruckner’s 8th with the Berlin Philharmonic in October 2007 at the Philharmonie, and Haitink’s recent Strauss concerts, as well as Davis’s recent Bruckner 7 were at the same level. And how could it be otherwise with such outstanding principals as Paul Silverthorne, Tim Hugh, Andrew Marriner, Gareth Davies and David Pyatt – to name but a few?
Critical response to this opening season was surprisingly mixed, even at this stage, but it was nothing like the reaction to Gergiev’s Mahler cycle which formed the backbone to the 2007-2008 season. Divided opinion among professional critics was reflected in the comments from concert-goers on the LSO website, and it is worth looking back at all these sources in order to understand the vehement controversy which these performances, and Gergiev in particular, generated. Not wanting to take too big a risk, I booked two concerts, Mahler’s 5th and 2nd.
Having heard Gergiev give a searing performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Barbican Hall a few weeks before, I could not believe what happened in the Mahler 5th which was unremitting and heartlessly driven. In the first movement's second subject, and even in the great Adagietto, he never allowed sufficient space for the aching beauty of the music to breathe. We never caught a glimpse of the ironic subtext to the naive and sentimental aspects of the score. Rather, we were subjected to a consistently hectoring barrage from the brass who spent much of the evening playing at the extreme limits of their volume range, an effect that proved completely unproductive. It undermined any sense of structure within movements, reducing them to a succession of unrelated, blaring outbursts. Hence that wondrous moment of light and hope at the end of the tempestuous second movement, where the brass chorale rises out of the terror, went for nothing, as did its reappearance at the end of the work. Gergiev seemed utterly incapable of not whipping up speed and volume at the approach to each climax, so that, ultimately, Mahler's Fifth was harrassed to death. I was not alone in returning tickets.
Critical response to the rapidly appearing recordings is as divided as for the concerts, with some commentators regarding these interpretations as inspirational and revelatory. However, David Gutman, in reviewing the 6th, sums up my own experience: ‘…a trail is blazed for a visceral, even thuggish brand of music-making,’ while the Andante…'is soon being harried towards a climax that blares unmercifully’. Tim Ashley, reviewing the 7th, refers to: ‘…an exercise in orchestral virtuosity that primarily strives for effect rather than attempting to explore underlying substance. It’s thrillingly played, but Gergiev’s speeds are at times self-consciously extreme. A sense of garbled excitement pervades the outer movements…’ Quite.
The 2008-2009 season has started with a Rachmaninov mini-festival; it seemed unlikely that Gergiev would disappoint within his own specialism. However, at the end of two consecutive concerts on Sunday 21st September, featuring Symphonies 1 & 3, followed by the Fourth Piano Concerto and Symphony No. 2, I walked despondently away from the cheering crowds with chronic aural fatigue. It is difficult not to recall Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous quote: ‘The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.’
Critical opinion was, again, acutely divided: Edward Seckerson in the Independent suggested that … ‘these performances told us more about Valery Gergiev than about Rachmaninov. There was brilliance, energy, dynamism – but the overriding impression was of skim-reading these scores’. Referring to the Second Symphony, I, like him, ‘yearned for nocturnal half-lights’. His most telling comment was: ‘I longed for a real piano, not mezzo piano, or mezzo forte. But Gergiev was always impatient for the next climax and his nervy body language ensured that they arrived too soon. The finale had shot its bolt before the tumultuous coda.’
Alexei Volodin’s brittle performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto did nothing to generate a much-desired oasis between the symphonies, merely stoking the neurasthenic hysteria. Shrieking trumpets, blaring lower brass, coagulated string sound and overwhelmed winds – remember Svetlanov’s USSR Symphony Orchestra in its worst excesses? It’s ALL TOO LOUD, and I fear that the LSO’s wonderful tonal sophistication is being corrupted.
One week later, Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Sir Colin was as truly lovely, joyous, exquisitely nuanced and profoundly intelligent as the LSO’s support. Here we were, back in the real world. A few day’s later, at the RFH, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, with Ivan Fischer, was demonstrating its world-class credentials in Schoenberg and Mahler with a sophistication and culture totally unrecognisable in Gergiev’s work.
It is pointless expressing these views on the LSO website any more; not that opinions are censored; they certainly are not, but Gergiev-mania stalks the land, and negative critics are trashed as idiots and killjoys.
And Richard Morrison? Let’s remember he has written an excellent book on the LSO. He accuses Gergiev of ‘…a deep vein of cynicism…’ and considers him ‘…a masterly operator in the super-rich circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow...’ Like other commentators, he casts doubt on Gergiev’s motives for the infamous ‘Ossetian Concert’, and states that his relationship with Putin is ‘mutually self-serving’. Gergiev, he says, ‘…is up to his neck in politics…’, and suggests that Gergiev is tainted by ‘…aligning himself with a Russian leader whose methods many people consider morally dubious…,’ and thus jeopardising his position with supportive, but neutral British audiences. Gergiev is entitled to his political views, but not if they taint the reputation of the LSO, and I am horrified that Kathryn McDowell, the orchestra’s managing director, issued a statement supporting that Ossetian concert.
There has been much to admire in Gergiev’s work, a magnificent ‘War and Peace’ at Covent Garden, rare Russian Operas, a definitive ‘Eugen Onegin’ on HD from the Met. But to sustain the role of Principal Conductor of one of the world’s great orchestras requires a much broader range, and on the evidence of recent work, his more excessive musical traits are ossifying. The LSO should not become yet another notch on Gergiev’s musical bedpost.
I shall be returning my Gergiev tickets and am looking forward to the prospect of soon hearing the other Russian in town, Vladimir Jurowski, who is winning consistent plaudits for outstanding programming and performance. I would be saddened to end my support for the LSO, but all Golden Ages come to an end.
Now read about Vladimir Putin's musical tastes.
I am sure my photo montages need no captions. But to keep the record straight from top to bottom they feature Valery Gergiev with Pierre Monteux, Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis and Vladimir Putin. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk