Monday 14 April 2014

Magnificent Extravagance - Gergiev and LSO in Scriabin

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra continued their exploration of Scriabin's music at the Barbican last night with a concert with put Scriabin's Symphony No. 3 in C minor, The Divine Poem alongside Messiaen's early Les offrandes oubliees and Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 played by the young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov.

Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliees - meditations symphonique was written in 1930, the year Messiaen left the Paris Conservatoire but already his distinctive compositional voice is very clear. The work is designed as a meditation of Christ's sacrifice and work's three movements originally had titles linking them clearly to this theme. Written for a large orchestra, the LSO had over 50 strings on stage with triple woodwind, the sound world of the piece is clearly Messiaen, though some of the complexities of his later writing are not yet present. The opening movement was a long sinuous plainchant melody over held chords, the textures were completely magical but only occasionally did the sound recall mature Messiean. The middle section was an ecstatic dance, leading to a quietly intense closing movement. Here Gergiev and the LSO showed stunning control in the movement. It concluded with a long passage for divisi violins and violas which was expressive yet quiet; quite astonishing.

Though the orchestra reduced in size for Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, there were still over 40 strings on stage. This was a very muscular performance, Gergiev made the orchestral tutti at the opening quite big boned and the tempo was fairly disciplined without much give and take. Daniil Trifonov played with a very poetic feel but with an underlying sense of firmness of purpose.

Born in 1991, the young pianist has already won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (First Prize and Grand Prize) and the Rubenstein Competition in Tel Aviv, as well as taking third price in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

Trifonov's big gestures had great power and discipline, but the more filigree sections of the piano writing were beautifully fluent whilst having power too. This was a very strong, but poetic performance but one which verged on the mannered for all the muscular poetry of his playing. In the second movement Trifonov produced magical poetry and certainly time seemed to suspend with the lovely delicacy of this highly decorated passages. Things seemed to come almost to a stop during the cadenza before the re-capitulation. But we concluded with a brilliantly flexible account of the final movement.

Throughout the concerto his playing had an intense quality, and for much of the time he played hunched over the keyboard as if communing with the instrument. His playing came over as very mature, with few signs of youth, perhaps a reflection of the fact that he has been playing the piano since he was five!

For the second half of the concert, the orchestra expanded again with the full complement of strings plus quadruple woodwind, five trumpets and eight horns for Scriabin's Symphony No. 3 in C minor, The Divine Poem. The symphony is the work in which Scriabin first seems to have found his individual voice; referring to it the composer said 'This was the first time I found light in music .... the first time I knew intoxication, flight, the breathlessness of happiness'. The work was written between 1902 and 1904 and premiered in Paris in 1905. Scriabin's wealthy patron had died in 1903 and the composer had given up his post at the the Moscow Conservatoire and spent the following years touring Europe, often short of money but secure in his notion in his quasi-divine mission to redeem the world through art, something which was sustained by his fascination with Nietsche. This philosophy is inextricably linked to Scriabin's music and it is still difficult to take the symphony as a musical entity without considering its philosophical origins.

Starting with a motto theme on the brass which re-occurs throughout the work, Scriabin explores his chosen themes at great length and in a rather prolix manner. The first movement lasts some 20 minutes and the whole piece is around 50 minutes, though the movements played continuously and the work really follows the Lisztian model of a multi-part single movement work with continuous transformation of the thematic material. The sound world, at first, seems to be a combination of Liszt with Rachmaninov on acid.

Gergiev's love of the piece was apparent, as was his control of his gargantuan forces which ensured that the quieter moments (of which there were many) were played with remarkable delicacy. There was a constant feeling of striving, that something was struggling to get free but never quite making it. For most of the work Gergiev kept Scriabin's excesses on a tight rein and only occasionally did things break free in glorious freedom with such moments when the trumpets blazed forth with the motto theme over the entire orchestra (you began to understand the need for five of them!). There were incredible climaxes, and magical transparency too.  But, frankly, by the end of the work I felt that for all Gergiev's advocacy Scriabin was in need of a good editor, that the work did sprawl so and would have benefitted from some greater concision. This is probably my lack of sympathy with the main-stream late Romantic symphony in the tradition of Bruckner and Mahler coming through.

I have nothing but admiration for the stunning playing from the LSO and certainly hope that their performance has been captured for CD.
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