mon 24/06/2024

Kavakos, Matsuev, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Kavakos, Matsuev, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican

Kavakos, Matsuev, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican

Two master soloists help deliver a heavenly conclusion to Gergiev's Szymanowski cycle

Valery Gergiev with Leonidas Kavakos: 'their balances in the Second Violin Concerto were often absolutely as one could have wanted'

Valery Gergiev’s exploration of the music of Karol Szymanowski is one of the most vitalising series mounted at the Barbican in recent years - to compare, say, with Sir Colin Davis’s Sibelius and Berlioz, Michael Tilson Thomas’s tributes to Leonard Bernstein, or Gergiev’s own Shostakovich and (increasingly) Prokofiev.

The first point, and Gergiev himself is in no doubt about this, is that Szymanowski belongs right up there with the best of them. An uncredited introductory note (the others, pithy and perceptive, are by Polish-Russian specialist Adrian Thomas) rightly points out that Szymanowski was born, in the then Polish Ukraine, during a three-year wunderkind period which also saw the births of Bartók, Stravinsky and Webern (he might have added Casella). As miraculous an era as the torch-passing year 1934 among English composers.

Bartók is especially relevant, for if one is going to compare Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony - a piano concerto in all but name, and composed like Bartók's last (American) works to keep the Polish composer afloat during a period of financial duress and terminal health problems - to anything, it would be to Bartók's as yet uncomposed Third Piano Concerto. The sound world is similar: the pressing, bubbling woodwind sustaining long lines in eerie double octaves, especially as hauntingly delivered here by 1998 Tchaikovsky competition first-prizewinner Denis Matsuev (pictured below right); and the sudden bursts of aggressive, then flailing, energy: other-worldly, mysterious, somehow disembodied.

The Fourth Symphony acquired an audible, intricate logic and allure, and detail galore

The last three are epithets one might expect to apply to Szymanowski’s middle period - the First Violin Concerto, the Third Symphony (which Gergiev, paradoxically, rather hammered in the preceding concert) and the ravishing Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin. But that makes the point. Valid though the perception of Szymanowski’s work as falling into three periods may be (Straussian and/or Regerian, exotically Ravel-like, and finally folksy, echoing (or even preceding) Bartók and possibly akin to the Stravinsky of Les Noces or The Soldier’s Tale - there were splays of Firebird, too, in this LSO concert) the story is - as invariably with triple-period definitions of composers’ work - insufficient: the exoticism feeds into even the acerbic elements of Symphony Four and (as witnessed here, in the wonderful hands of Leonidas Kavakos, surely the best thing to emerge from Greece since Theodorakis and Themistocles) the Second Violin Concerto. To feel this most intensely, it is worth listening to Szymanowski’s late Second String Quartet.

So why was Gergiev’s reading of these two works, with soloists one could compare to Gilels and Oistrakh, so much more compelling than the chorus-led Symphony Three? Because Valery Gergiev, keen-eyed and keen-witted, imported into both the very qualities lacking in his "Piesn o nocy" ("Song of the Night"). Conscious of his soloists, and scrupulously accompanying them as he might in a Schumann or (more relevantly) Chopin concerto, he kept the whole orchestra restrained, nervous, on tenterhooks, allowing the piano, and in the second work, violin, to glisten and gleam, beckon or bluster: so that the whole of the symphony acquired an audible, intricate logic and allure, and detail galore - fabulous flutes, superbly mellow yet insistent clarinets, amazing flickers of bassoon (can a bassoon "flicker"?), and the piano in both works - for there is one in the violin concerto too, producing extraordinary, sometimes contradictory glints in the sensual textures, while boosting the percussive bits too - was allowed to emerge.

Here indeed was a comparison with Brahms, a composer Szymanowski (unlike Britten) admired, and whose influence is palpable on Szymanowski’s piano sonatas, which remind us that Szymanowski’s keyboard oeuvre defies period specification and introduces other ingredients to the heady, characterful (but absorbed, not eclectic) mix. With both composers (here it was Brahms's fourth and final symphony, a masterclass in instrumental deployment), the fascinating hinterland of external and internal detail, the phenomenal filigree of rippling woodwind, was never lost, even if the sound, albeit much less at the back than the middle of the Barbican, is still overwhelmingly immediate (give us a boomy, appetisingly reverberant cathedral anytime, or Symphony Hall’s brilliant, enabling but now underused echo chamber portals), and needlessly acidic.

Gergiev is an absolute master at connecting. Time and again, at some orchestral link passage (or even a fulcral chord) in both composers - and there were some jolly tricky ones in this concert - with or without a score, he can control a transition, with those eagle and sometime abstracted eyes, plus fluttery fingers, intriguing though often unintelligible to an audience (not, it seems, the players), driving it on or pulling it back with the merest tweak of rubato, so as to generate a rhythmic jolt, or judder, or jerk that lifts the whole thing into a different mode. This is what, above all, makes his handling so bold, nervy, electrifying, above all, enlightening. It’s what you need in Beethoven; but it is crucial with Brahms, and Szymanowski too.  

It would be difficult to fault these two solo performances. Right the way from the rippling start (wonderfully reprised by Szymanowski and indeed Gergiev himself late on; the LSO strings seemed much more stylistically attuned here than in the bumptiously done Third Symphony) the magic was there, in Matsuev’s playing and the orchestral desks as well. 

Gergiev and Kavakos slotting together was like a jazz session

Here was the paradox: the concertante work positively blazes in places - the biggest surges are pure Scriabin in full flow. Yet Gergiev reined it in so that one heard instrumental detail in droves. There’s a lot of it in Szymanowski, and if you miss it, he can sound like a pretty ordinary mid-European composer. Hit it, and he emerges as world-class and better. Gergiev caught it. So the blaring and tub-thumping that undermined Symphony Three was absent. Had he spoken to the orchestra, perhaps? The forces, in both works, were anyway reduced: more like a chamber orchestra, in fact - bigger for the Brahms. When Szymanowski reduces the forces to perhaps two, three, or four instruments - piano, tympani, double basses, for instance: what a moment that was - the effect is absolutely mesmerising, rather as if Shostakovich were at work. And so it was here. Thrilling, spine-tingling. Only the cadenzas (the composer’s own, presumably, for he himself was the first soloist in the work - it empowered him to earn a soloist’s healthy fee, to expend on his doomed treatment for TB at the Swiss health spa of Davos), appetisingly caressed by Matsuev, felt thinner on the ground: more than a little repetitive, material-wise.

Even here, in Szymanowski’s penultimate work, one heard the descending ripples, or variants, or extensions, of his signal "Sabala" motif, a musical germ with chromatic potential as haunting as the Soviet’s DSCH pattern. It’s more obvious still in the Violin Concerto No 2, a very different egg from the First (which some would see as the Pole’s absolute masterpiece). Kavakos (pictured right), originally from sunny, albeit broke, Hellas, might not be a central European, but you’d think he’s been scouring the Carpathians and Tatras like Bartók, notebook in hand. Szymanowski’s folk idiom came primarily from the Tatras, which were local to his southern home in the mountain foothills, Zakopane. There he hobnobbed with folk musicians, including some very important and charismatic ones, in street, bars and drawing rooms, debriefing them of their art (which was pretty obvious to a musician of his calibre anyway). It also, surely, came from further afield (eastern Poland, for instance) as his piano music might suggest. 

There’s nothing greedy, ostentatious or distracting about Kavakos’s playing. The tone is gorgeous, robust, never sickly. He and Gergiev revelled in getting things right, and the balances – more so than early in the full-orchestra Brahms, though both were pretty acceptable – were often absolutely as one could have wanted. Kavakos’s double-stopping, from the outset, was spot-on: one would have loved Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin as a half-an-hour encore. Cor anglais amid the textures, a muted trumpet that wafted us straight to the elusive world of Szymanowski’s exotic period, a mesmerising slow mazurka that could have been Heifetz playing gorgeous Samuel Barber, excitingly unexpected pedal points in the double basses, these were among a million glinting highlights: and we heard them all.

Szymanowski’s Zakopane is, of course, the adoptive home of Nigel Kennedy. Watching Gergiev and Kavakos (and indeed the compacted LSO) slotting together in this Barbican event, one might have been present at a jazz (in places, even jam) session. Kennedy and Grappelli, Gergiev and Kavakos. Heavenly music: but heavenly music-making too.


What a bizarre rift between this and your previous review. OK, so one concert may have been good and the other bad, but you earlier wrote that the pairing of Brahms and Szymanowski was a disaster. What's happened to change all that, apart from better performances? And the Barbican may be far from ideal ('tinny', probably not), but you must be nuts to wish a cathedral acoustic on us as alternative. We all know what happened when Gergiev took his Mahler to St Paul's...

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