Monday 24 November 2008

LSO/Gergiev - Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, 23 November 2008

Barbican Hall

Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet, op.64

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Following a wonderful Proms performance of Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty, the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev have now turned to what is Prokofiev’s greatest ballet, Romeo and Juliet. What a luxury it had been not only to hear The Sleeping Beauty complete, but also for it to have been performed by a great symphony orchestra and a conductor to whom this repertoire is so central. The same could be said of the present performance: characteristic of what Gergiev does best and yet also reminding us of the LSO’s longstanding form in such music, not least under André Previn during the 1970s.

The orchestral tone sounded just right from the very opening bars. Rhythms were always pointed so that we could hear that this was music to be danced to. The imaginary curtain rose upon a vividly characterised Romeo, as yet jejune in his feelings for Rosaline. Andrew Marriner’s clarinet solo was, however, so beguilingly set against flawless pizzicato strings that we might almost have believed that the story would turn out differently. Prokofiev’s ever-resourceful, ever-changing orchestration would grant almost every instrument in the orchestra a chance to shine; Rachel Gough certainly grasped this opportunity in her bassoon solo as the street awakened. As the rivalry between Montagues and Capulets came fully into focus, razor-sharp yet never merely brash orchestral motor-rhythms looked forward to the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, Gergiev’s wide-ranging knowledge of Prokofiev’s œuvre readily apparent. The militarism of the warring families’ clash was terrifyingly portrayed, reminding me of the quasi-futurism of the Third Symphony and even Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry. Gergiev and his brass players conveyed an apposite sense both of implacability and of hollowness to the descending scales of the ensuing interlude, brass vibrato here and elsewhere sounding impeccably Russian. Juliet’s music, upon her appearance, provided a welcome sense of contrast: playful and tender by turns. That she would soon be something other than a girl was made abundantly clear by a magnificently Romantic ’cello solo (Floris Mjinders, I think), laden with a telling vibrato. The festal arrival of the guests put me in mind of that in Tannhäuser: not a connection I recall having made before. When, in Masks, we heard the return of those magical ‘Romeo chords’, I was struck not only by the silvery, Cinderella-like tone of the violins but also by Gergiev’s command of the thematic interrelationships in this, surely the most Wagnerian of Prokofiev’s scores. The conductor’s command of his orchestra was visibly and audibly apparent when, at the very opening of the balcony scene, the violins responded immediately to his hand gesture for more fulsome vibrato. Indeed, impassioned, soaring violins were crucial in conveying a Romantic ardour in full flow during the final numbers of the first act.

I was taken by the contrast during the second act between the lovers’ intimacy and the bustling, uncomprehending social world outside. The Dance of the five couples was suave, sardonic in the melodic and harmonic side-slipping so characteristic of the composer, whilst the choir of horns attending the secret wedding was an object lesson in the art of tenderness. Prokofiev’s originality in scoring was highlighted, albeit without undue exaggeration, in the combination of mandolins and trumpets during the Dance with mandolins. Mercutio’s death emerged as duly haunting, not least on account of such fine playing from bassoon and ’cellos. The parallel death of Tybalt packed an enormous dramatic punch: rhythmically and sonically implacable, indeed almost deafening at its climax.

The contrast between the forces of order (the Duke) and convention (Juliet’s father) and the young lovers continued to characterise the third act. We heard the brief, tender domesticity of Romeo and Juliet in soft tones, which yielded as much as the act’s opening music had refused to do so. During the lengthy sequence stretching from Juliet alone in her bedroom to her taking the potion acquired from Friar Laurence, Gergiev showed that, however hapless he might have proved in Mahler, in this, the most symphonic music of the ballet, he need fear no rivals in conveying the symphonic sweep of Prokofiev’s score. The short fourth act, or epilogue, presented a truly tragic and indeed defiant portrayal of the lovers’ death. The brass section rightly bludgeoned our ears, whilst strings and woodwind tugged at our heartstrings, the LSO’s percussion – and, of course, the conductor – mediating between these two related impulses. Gergiev proved himself a master narrator.